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William Wordsworth

1770-1850

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth, one of the central figures of English Romantic poetry, was born on April 7, 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland in the Lake District of Northern England. The second of five children, he lost his mother when he was seven, and his father, an estate attorney, died when Wordsworth was only thirteen. At that time, William and his brothers were sent by their guardians to grammar school at Hawkshead, a central village in the Lake District, which separated him and his brothers from their sister. There he received a first class education in the Classics, literature and mathematics, but his favorite part of his schooling was the opportunity to explore the outdoors.

In 1787, Wordsworth entered St. John's College, Cambridge, which did not challenge or inspire him. He considered his most important accomplishment while there to be the summer vacation of 1790 that he devoted to a long walking tour of revolutionary France, where he became a full supporter of the republicans and their cause. When he graduated from Cambridge the next year with an undistinguished pass, he promptly returned to France and fell in love with Annette Vallon. Their daughter, Ann Caroline, was born in 1792, but because he had to return to England and was kept there due to the outbreak of war between the two countries, he did not see his daughter until she was nine years old.

The next several years of Wordsworth's life were dark and he remained in England as a sympathizer of the French cause. Penniless and without a home, he was not prepared to work in any profession, and he was cut off from his beloved France because of the war. Wordsworth wandered London, meeting people like the politically radical William Godwin, which led to his deep sympathy for the plight of women, children, the poor and the victims of the war, all of whom dominate his poetry from this period. In 1793, 'An Evening Walk' and 'Descriptive Sketches' were his first poems to be published, though they went quite unnoticed. His outlook changed in 1795 when he was reunited with his sister Dorothy, his confidant and primary source of encouragement. In 1797, they moved to Alfoxden House near Bristol, and they were never separated again. Fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived close by, and the two writers formed a fast friendship that would change both the tone and messages of Wordsworth's works and English poetry as a whole.

Wordsworth and Coleridge's camaraderie had some important effects on Wordsworth. He began in 1797 to write the shorter, more lyrical poems that he is best remembered for today. These poems were published in one volume, Lyrical Ballads, which began with Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and ended with Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey'. Lyrical Ballads, which many critics mark as the beginning of the Romantic movement in English poetry, set forth a fresh style with bold ideas new to poetry. Many of the poems foreshadowed events of the coming century. Coleridge also passed on to Wordsworth a very ambitious project to be called The Brook. He suggested that the piece, originally his own, 'treat all science, philosophy and religion', but Wordsworth never finished it even though he worked on it throughout his life. Only one of the proposed three parts was completed and published as The Excursion in 1814.

Wordsworth spent the winter of 1798-1799 in Germany with Dorothy experiencing what he referred to as the most intense isolation he ever knew. Some of his most dramatic poems, such as the Lucy poems and 'Michael', came to him during this period, and they were added to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1800. This was the same edition for which the famous Preface was written that defended his and Coleridge's new style of writing and the criticism surrounding it.

In December 1799, Wordsworth moved into Dove Cottage at Grasmere, Westmorland in the Lake District, where he lived for eight years. Poet Robert Southey and Coleridge lived close by, and the three became known as the Lake Poets. In 1802, during the Peace of Amiens, he returned to France to resolve his relationship with Annette and to meet his daughter for the first time. He returned to England and married a childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson, that same year and had a family with three sons and two daughters by 1810. The poem 'She Was a Phantom of Delight' was written with his wife in mind.

In 1805, after the drowning of his brother John, there was a noticeable change in Wordsworth's writing. At the same time, Dorothy began to suffer the effects of an emotional and mental breakdown from which she never recovered. The poems of this period seemed to be holding something back and had a darker tone and stronger diction. He began to produce many odes and sonnets, quite a number of which were done in sequence. One such series traced his tours through Europe and is known as the Ecclesiastical Sketches. Another, known as the Duddon sonnets, shows the progress of a stream and the philosophy that comes with contemplation of it. His Poems in Two Volumes containing 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality' and 'Resolution and Independence' was published in 1807. Darker poems of the time revolve around the topic of the loss of two of his children in 1812.

During this time, Wordsworth had moved his family from Dove Cottage in 1805 to a roomier home in Grasmere and then yet again to Rydal Mount near Ambleside in 1810, where the poet lived out his final years. In 1813, Wordsworth became employed as a stamp distributor for Westmorland at a salary of £400 a year. While there he published 'Thanksgiving Ode' and 'Peter Bell' (1819), the latter an example of his reworking his earlier poetry, something he did often in the final years of his life. In 1843, Wordsworth was named Britain's poet laureate, a post he held until his death seven years later on April 23, 1850.

Wordsworth left English poetry with three legacies. The first was a new outlook towards nature that showed the relationship between the earth and man. The second was the autobiographical poem, 'The Prelude' (1850), which not only revealed the poet to his readers but the nature of man to all. The third was that he brought poetry to the forefront of existence, saying that it was 'the first and last of all knowledge - it is as immortal as the heart of man.' Many place Wordsworth as the third greatest English poet, behind only Milton and Shakespeare.



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