William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth, Cumberland, on April 4, 1770. He was the second son of John Wordsworth, attorney-at-law. William was a boy of moody and violent temper. Wordsworth’s mother died in 1778; and in that year he was sent to the ancient grammar school of Hawkshead. According to Wordsworth, his father never recovered his cheerfulness after the death of his mother. His father died five years later. Wordsworth, then, was placed under the guardianship of two uncles.
At Hawkshead, in the beautiful lake region, Wordsworth learned more eagerly from flowers, hills and stars, than from books. To appreciate the influence of Nature upon him in these early years, we must read his own record in The Prelude. Three things clearly emerge from our reading of this poem: first, Wordsworth loved to be alone, and never felt lonely with Nature; second, he felt the presence of some living spirit, real though unseen: and thirdly, his impressions of Nature were delightfully familiar.
In 1787 Wordsworth joined St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge. Already he had developed both the habit of verse and the temperament of poetry. Among his published works are included two sets of verses written as early as 1786. He had been well-taught at Hawkshead so at St. John’s College, he gave most of his time to reading nothing but classic authors according to his fancy, and Italian poetry.
At St. John’s College, During his freshman year, he composed a large part of the Evening Walk. The third book of The Prelude contains a realistic account of his student life at college, with its trivial occupations, its pleasures and general aimlessness. Even in these years, he was meditative, and responsive to the beauty of natural scenery. In spite of the regret he afterwards expressed about the thoughtlessness of his youth in paying too little heed to the impressive surroundings of the college, he has recorded many of the charms of the University. Of his Cambridge friends, the chief was Robert Jones, who subsequently took orders, and with whom, in 1790, he undertook the walking tour in France and Switzerland.
In January 1791, Wordsworth took his B.A. degree. His guardians had chosen the ecclesiastical profession for him. But it made no strong appeal to him. Perhaps before taking his degree, he had experienced some disturbance in his religious and moral beliefs. He pleaded for delay and convinced his guardians that he should spend a year in learning French.
He went to France at the end of November 1791, and remained there till the end of 1792, for the most part in Orleans and Blois. France was at that time in the grip of the Revolution. He took to France a keen sympathy with the principles of the Revolution. His faith in the revolutionary idea was deepened and intensified by the intimate friendship which he formed in Blois with Michel de Beaupuy, a captain in the republican army.
Wordsworth wrote a remarkable poem on the French Revolution—a poem reflecting the hopes and ambitions that stirred all Europe in the early days of the mighty upheaval. Perhaps if a suitable opportunity had presented itself, he would have thrown himself into a life of soldiering at this time. He had been a keen student of military history: and his passionate, head-strong nature was greatly attracted by the idea of commanding troops, and fighting for the revolutionary cause.
In Orleans, Wordsworth had a love-affair with Marie-Anne Vallon, a girl of a royalist family, by whom he had a daughter, Anne-Caroline. During his stay in France, Wordsworth wrote the greater part of Descriptive Sketches. Isolated passages truly expressed his sympathies with the Revolution, his deep moral dejection, and even a mood of religious unbelief.
In February 1793, Wordsworth published both Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk. Of both poems perhaps, the principal interest resides in the conflict between style and substance: things freshly and romantically observed struggle for expression within the limits of a diction which has all the faults of the worst eighteenth century work. In the same month, England declared war upon France. This was the first real shock which his moral nature received. At once he ranged himself on the side of France.
February 1793 was further notable in that it saw the publication of Godwin’s Political Justice. Under the influence of Godwin, Wordsworth began now to deify reason. In the autumn of 1793, he started writing Guilt and Sorrow, his first considerable poem, and many parts of it distinctively “Godwinian”. It was finished in 1794. In 1795 he began, and in 1796 finished, The Borderers, A Tragedy, of which the gloomy perversities show him struggling out of the ‘Godwinism’ in which he had been for two painful years involved.
For two years since his return from France, Wordsworth had led a wandering life making no effort to find for himself a provision. In the early part of 1795 occurred the death of a friend (Raisley Calvert), who left him a legacy of nine hundred pounds. He used the independence afforded to him by this money to settle with his sister Dorothy at Racedon, Crewkerne. It was here that The Border, era was finished; and here Margaret or The Ruined Cottage was begun. The poem was finished at Alfoxden where, in the summer, of 1797, William and Dorothy moved, in order to be near Coleridge at Nether Stowey.
Wordsworth traces the recovery of his moral and poetical health to the influence, first of his sister, and secondly of Coleridge. It was while these “three persons and one soul” were living close together in Somerset that the Lyrical Ballads were conceived and written. During this period of his life Wordsworth produced his best work. Dorothy, though a silent partner, supplied perhaps the largest share of the inspiration which, resulted in the Lyrical Ballads (1798). The publication of the Lyrical Ballads constitutes the most important event in the history of English poetry since Milton.
After the publication of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and his sister set sail for Germany. The six months’ stay there did little to broaden Wordsworth’s mind or intensify his powers ; because, unlike Coleridge, he was not sensitive to the thought of his age, and not responsive to new influences. But it proved an agreeable holiday, and perhaps the detachment from English surroundings served to throw the poet more exclusively upon his imaginative memories. Certainly the poems he wrote during this time, such as Lucy Gray and Ruth, are especially happy in their simplicity and charm. On his return from Germany, he and his sister went to live in Grasmere; in the Lake District. There rest of his life was spent, except for occasional tours in Scotland and on the Continent.
In 1802, Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinsoir of Penrith. It was not a remarkable event in his imaginative life. However, it proved a happy union. She made a good wife and an interesting companion, but as an influence cannot rank either with his sister Dorothy, or with Coleridge.
In 1802—3, Wordsworth’s political interests revived, as is clear from the sonnets of that year. He wrote a series of political sonnets which form a new and important development of his work.
The effect of the revival of political feeling on Wordsworth’s poetry is open to debate. Conventionally, his sonnets on public affairs are numbered among the great ones of the language. Gerard Manlay Hopkins complained that there was too much sententious moralising in them. If we compare them with the French parts of The Prelude, we feel that Wordsworth is now simply telling us about his political opinions, not re-creating his political passions. When he writes from the more superficial layers of his mind, he is capable of horrid flatness.
In 1807, Wordsworth published the Poems in Two Volumes. These show a wide extension of his poetical power. New life is given to the sonnet and to the ode. The sonnet is used with fine effect to express lofty patriotic sentiment. Here were printed, for the first time, the Ode to Duty and the immortal Ode on Intimation of Immortality.
The volumes of 1800 and 1807 established Wordsworth as one of the great inventors of poetical forms. But, from apart these volumes, taken together with The Prelude, The Recluse fragment, Margaret or The Ruined Cottage (written by 1807), constitute a body of poetical work of which the compass and original power are such as to place him among the greatest poets.
The last period of Wordsworth’s life saw a decline in his poetic powers. By 1807, in fact, his best work was done. The death, in 1805, of his brother John Wordsworth had affected deeply his temperament, and he went back to religious orthodoxy. By the end of 1820, his thinking in religion and in politics lost that speculative rebel quality from which it drew so much of its early strength; and his imagination tended to hoard barren incidents and trivial perceptions to be the material of later poetry.
In 1814, appeared The Excursion, about which Jeffrey said, “This will never do”. Yet Keats thought it “one of the three things to rejoice at in this age”. But a general decline of poetic powers is unmistakable. In 1815 was published the first collective edition of Wordsworth’s works. In the same year appeared the White Doe of Rylestorie; in 1819, Peter Bell (written in 1798), and The Wagoner’; in 1820, The River Duddon, and Miscellaneous Poems.
A further decline of power was witnessed, in 1822, by the Ecclesiastical Sonnets and the Memorials of a Tour on the Continent. To the last, however, it is unwise to regard Wordsworth as negligible. At any moment the old power is likely to reassert itself. It is to the period of his decline that we owe, in The Prelude, the magic of the famous description of Newton’s statue:
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone.
Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone.
Many, again, of his best sonnets come from the late period. Here and there, from the Evening Voluntaries (1835), the old greatness flashes out. After 1835, Wordsworth published nothing new in poetry.
Much of Wordsworth’s easy flow of conversational blank verse had true lyrical power and grace. His finest work was permeated by a sense of the human relationship to external nature that was religious in its scope and intensity. To Wordsworth, God was everywhere manifest in the harmony of nature. He felt deeply the kinship between nature and the soul of humankind.
The tide of critical opinion turned in his favour after 1820, and Wordsworth lived to see his work universally praised. In 1842 he was awarded a government pension. In 1843 he succeeded Southey as poet laureate. Wordsworth died at Rydal Mount, April 23, 1850, and was buried in the Grasmere churchyard.