William Wordsworth

(1770 - 1850)


Short Biography

Birth

William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland, son of John Wordsworth, who worked as an agent and rent collector for Sir James Lowther.

1778-1790: Childhood and education

His mother died in 1778 (8), and in the same year he was sent as a boarder to Hawkshead Grammar School. His father died in 1783 (13), at which time Sir James owed him some £4000 (around £200,000 in today's terms), but he refused to honour the debt, which was not paid until 'wicked Jimmy' (Sir James Lowther) was dead (ie 20 years later). Responsibility for William and his brothers passed to his mother’s brother, Christopher Cookson, an unhappy arrangement for the children, who found their guardian unsympathetic. Hawkshead School, on the other hand, under the headship of William Taylor, was a progressive and liberally oriented establishment, where reading in mathematics and the sciences was encouraged. He attended St John’s College, Cambridge, from 1787 (17) to 1791 (21), and went on a walking tour of France, at that time in the midst of revolutionary turmoil, and Switzerland in 1790 (20) with his friend Robert Jones.

1791-2: Second visit to France and affair with Annette Vallon

He visited France again between November 1791 (21) and December 1792 (22). During this second visit he was befriended by Michel Beaupuy, through whom he came to share the ideals of the French Revolution. Whilst in Orléans he had an affair with Annette Vallon, who bore him a child in December 1792.

1793: He returns to England and radical ideas

Financial problems and the political situation forced him to return to England, where he began to give wholehearted support to the radical philosophy of Thomas Paine and William Godwin, openly expressing their ideas in his own poetry, and penning a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff in which he clearly expressed his republican sentiments.

1793: First publication

His first publications followed shortly after his return to England. An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches made their appearance on 29 January 1793, and received unfavourable not to say contemptuous reviews.

1793-4: The brothers, William and Raisley Calvert

His financial problems continued but fortunately, in April 1793 (23), William Calvert, a friend from Hawkshead School, who had recently inherited a considerable fortune, invited him on a tour of Wales, all expenses paid. The two men separated after an unfortunate accident that damaged the gig in which they were travelling beyond repair, but Wordsworth continued alone and on foot through Salisbury, Bath, Bristol and into Wales, passing by Tintern Abbey, later immortalised in the poem of that name, in which he recalls this first visit on the occasion of a second visit in 1798. The poem became his most significant contribution to Lyrical Ballads. The Calverts continued to support him during 1794, and Raisley, who was in poor health, agreed to leave him £600, later raised to £900, in his will. Wordsworth spent much of the latter part of 1794 looking after the sick man. On 7th November, he wrote to his friend William Mathews:

...cataracts and mountains are good occasional society, but they will not do for constant companions, besides I have not even much of their conversation, and still less of that of my books as I am so much with my sick friend, and he cannot bear the fatigue of being read to.

Raisley died on 9 January 1795 (25), and Wordsworth left shortly afterwards for London.

1795: Residence in London and Bristol

At the end of February 1795 (25), he took up residence in lodgings in Somers Town, a few doors away from William Godwin, and became involved with the radical republican circle around the philosopher, a circle which included William Frend, George Dyer, Thomas Holcroft, Basil Montagu, Francis Wrangham, and John and Azariah Pinney, the sons of a rich Bristol merchant, William Pinney, who had recently gifted a mansion called Racedown Lodge, situated on the Devon / Somerset border and close to the sea, to his eldest son, John, who now offered the property rent free to Wordsworth. Having agreed to look after the young son of Basil Montagu for £20 a year, Wordsworth left London towards the end of August 1795 for Bristol, where Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had been giving lectures. He writes to William Mathews on 24 October, 'I saw but little of him (Coleridge). I wished indeed to have seen more - his talent appears to me very great'. He arrived at Racedown with his sister Dorothy and the young Basil on 26 September.

1795-7: Racedown Lodge

While political turmoil continued in the land with the passing of the 'gagging acts' in December 1795, Wordsworth lived in solitude with his sister at Racedown. He writes to William Mathews on 24 October that they were both 'as happy as people can be who live in perfect solitude... We do not see a soul. Now and then we meet a miserable peasant in the road or an accidental traveller. The country people here are wretchedly poor, ignorant and overwhelmed with every vice that usually attends ignorance in that class, viz - lying and picking and stealing.'

1796-7: Visit to London and The Borderers

A visit to London beginning on 1 June and further acquaintance with Godwin and his circle gave rise to a reaction against the philosopher. He expressed some of his doubts concerning Godwin's ideas about rationality and benevolence in the play The Borderers (not published until 1842). The play also draws on his experiences in France during the Revolution. He asserts that he wrote the play 'to preserve in my distinct remembrance what I had observed of transition in character and the reflections I had been led to make during the time I was a witness of the changes through which the French Revolution passed' and in the Preface to the play comments on 'the dangerous use which may be made of reason when a man has committed a great crime'.

1796-7: Mary Hutchinson comes to visit.

His future wife, Mary Hutchinson, arrived to visit Dorothy in November 1796. Wordsworth describes her as 'a Phantom of delight'. Of her departure in June 1797, he writes

'... if you had but taken the road through Bristol when you left Racedown ... I should certainly have accompanied you as far as Bristol; or further, perhaps and then I thought, that you would not have taken the coach at Bristol, but that you would have walked on Northwards with me at your side, till unable to part from each other we might have come in sight of those hills (the Malverns) ... and .... I fancied that we should have seen so deeply into each others hearts, and been so fondly locked in each others arms, that we should have braved the worst and parted no more.' (Letter to Mary Wordsworth 11 August 1810)

Other poetry 1797-8:

He began to interest himself in the poor people of the region, now finding a deep sympathy with their suffering, patience and fortitude, and in many of his poems of this period he takes them as his subject, for example We are Seven, Anecdote for Fathers, The Thorn, Goody Blake and Harry Gill, Her Eyes are Wild, Simon Lee, and Expostulation and Reply. It would appear that he had become disillusioned not only with the philosophy of Godwin, but with 'intellectual' arguments in general. This radical change is well expressed in the poem The Tables Turned, which puts forward the proposition that 'One impulse from a vernal wood / May teach you more of man / Of moral evil and of good / Than all the sages can.'

1797: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Returning on foot from a trip to Bristol in early April, Wordsworth made a detour to pay a visit to Coleridge in Nether Stowey, and Coleridge returned the compliment a little later, arriving at Racedown on 5 June. Coleridge read aloud his unfinished drama Osorio and Wordsworth read aloud his Borderers. Coleridge expressed himself thus: 'I speak with heart-felt sincerity & (I think) unbliinded judgement, when I tell you, that I feel myself a little man by his side.... ' Dorothy Wordsworth commented in a letter to Mary Hutchinson dated June: 'You had a great loss in not seeing Coleridge. He is a wonderful man. His conversation teems with soul, mind and spirit.' Coleridge stayed until 28 June, returning two days later in a cart to carry off William and Dorothy to Nether Stowey.

1797-8: Alfoxton House

While staying at Nether Stowey, the Wordsworths found and took a lease on nearby Alfoxton House, 'a large mansion, in a large park, with seventy head of deer around us', on 14 July. The French government had declared war on Great Britain on 1 February 1793, ratcheting up the fear of invasion, and, having been seen wandering the countryside with notebooks and having been heard asking questions about the local geography, the new arrivals were immediately suspected of being French spies preparing for just such an invasion. Reports were relayed to Lord Portland, the minister in charge of national security and espionage, and James Walsh, a government agent, was sent down to investigate. Adding to the fears of the government, John Thelwall, recently tried for High Treason due to his advocacy of political reform, was one of Wordsworth's first visitors. Walsh was quickly convinced that there was little to the allegations, but Mrs St Albyn, the owner of the property, promptly gave notice to terminate the lease as soon as it expired in June 1798.

1797: John and Tom Wedgwood

Two of the sons of Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood, founders of the celebrated Wedgwood pottery at Barlaston, arrived on a visit in late September. Tom had a project to educate a child genius, and money to fund such a project, but Wordsworth seems to have found his ideas not only impracticable but also dangerous, particularly for the child. Tom Wedgwood left unimpressed, and, in the event, provided an annuity of £150 a year for life to Coleridge.

1798: Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were seeing each other almost daily at this period, collaborated on a collection of poetry which they called Lyrical Ballads, which was published on 4 October 1798 (28). The collection began with Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, begun as a joint project but concluded by Coleridge alone, and ended with Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, a poem composed just days before printing began in August. Wordsworth penned a short Advertisement (Preface) in which he set out some of the poets' intentions. For the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800, 30), now expanded to two volumes, Wordsworth re-arranged the poems, added others of his own, put his sole name on the title page and wrote a longer Preface, which set out in greater detail his theory of poetry. He elaborated on some of the ideas in this Preface of 1800 in an appendix to the third edition (1802, 32) entitled Poetic Diction.

The Recluse

It was during the course of 1798 that the idea of composing an epic philosophic poem was suggested by Coleridge. Wordsworth took on the idea, the object of the poem being, as he saw it, 'to give pictures of Nature, Man and Society. Indeed, I know not any thing which will not come within the scope of my plan.' (Letter to Jas Tobin, 6 March, 1798). The introduction to this magnum opus was The Prelude, a poem running to some 7800 lines, and completed between 1798 and 1805, but not published until just after Wordsworth's death in 1850. There were to be three further parts, only the second of which was completed, christened The Excursion and published in nine books (8814 lines in total) in 1814. The only other section to be completed was the first book of Part I, called Home at Grasmere, though Wordsworth asserts (in the Preface to The Prelude) that the other poetry he composed after 1805, when properly ordered, comprised Part III.

1798-9: Trip to Germany

On 16 September William and Dorothy Wordsworth set sail from Yarmouth for Hamburg with Coleridge and John Chester, a native of Nether Stowey, who held Coleridge in great awe. 'When he sat down at table with his idol,' recounts Hazlitt1, 'John's felicity was complete...' Having seen the sights of Hamburg all 'huddle and ugliness, stink and stagnation,' (Coleridge, letter to Thomas Poole, 26 October), Coleridge left for Ratzeburg on the recommendation of Victor Klopstock, brother of the poet Friedrich, with whom Wordsworth had several meetings. He arranged for rooms at Ratzeburg for himself and Chester. The Wordsworths were left to make their own arrangements, and travelled south to Goslar, 'a venerable (venerable I mean as to its external appearance) decayed city. It is situated at the foot of some small mountains, on the edge of the Harts forest. It was once the residence of Emperors, and it is now the residence of Grocers and Linen-drapers who are, I say it with a feeling of sorrow, a wretched race, the flesh, blood and bone of their minds being nothing but knavery and low falsehood'. Wordsworth made no progress in learning German as there was almost no-one with whom he could converse, and he and Dorothy lived in almost complete isolation, an isolation which had its benefits as the poet was thrown back on his own resources, and composed a considerable amount of poetry, including the 'Lucy' and 'Matthew' poems. They were effectively kept at Goslar by the exceptionally cold winter, leaving only on 23 February to tour the Harz mountains and probably some of the towns of Upper Saxony, including Weimar. Unfortunately, Wordsworths account of this tour has been lost. Coleridge had in the meantime moved to Göttingen, where the Wordsworths arrived in April burning with '.. impatience to return to their native country' (Coleridge, letter to Sara Coleridge, 23 April), but, not being able to persuade Coleridge to go with them, promptly left the next day.

Marriage

He married Mary Hutchinson in 1802 (32), and acquired two patrons in Sir George Beaumont and Sir William Lowther, the latter settling his cousin’s debt to Wordsworth.

His brother drowns at sea

His brother John was drowned at sea in 1805 (35).

His ménage à quatre

His sister Dorothy continued to live with Wordsworth, along with his new wife and her sister, Sara Hutchinson. They were often visited by Coleridge, who had moved to the Lake District with his wife, and who had become emotionally involved with Sara Hutchinson.

Poems in Two Volumes

Wordsworth published Poems in Two Volumes in 1807 (37) in an edition of 1000, 230 of which were still unsold in 1814. The volume received a critical drubbing from the Edinburgh Review.

He argues with Coleridge

He severed his connection with Coleridge in 1810 (40), partly because of that poet’s continued addiction to opium.

Wordsworth the family man and distributor of stamps

He now had five children, two of whom died in 1812 (42). In 1813 (43) he moved to Rydal Mount, Ambleside, and was appointed the official distributor of stamps for Westmoreland with a salary of £400 a year.

The Excursion and other poetry

In 1814 (44) he published The Excursion, 9000 lines of poetry in nine volumes, which aroused little interest, followed by The White Doe of Rylstone (1815, 45), Peter Bell (1819, 49) and Benjamin the Waggoner (1819, 49). He continued to be criticised for his low subjects and ‘simplicity’. Thereafter he became more interested in reworking, ordering and anthologising his work in various collected editions.

Poet Laureate

He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1843 (73).

Death

He died in 1850 (80) and was buried in Grasmere churchyard.