William Wordsworth: The Life and Legacy

Early Life and Background

William Wordsworth, a prominent figure in English literature, was born on April 7, 1770, in the picturesque town of Cockermouth, England. His father, John Wordsworth, served as a legal agent for James Lowther, the 1st Earl of Lonsdale, and held the position of Collector of Customs at Whitehaven. His mother, Ann Cookson, hailed from a family of some distinction.

John Wordsworth was not the first in his family to serve the Lowther family; his own father, Richard Wordsworth, had been a landowner and legal agent for the Lowthers. John's career eventually led him to become the Bailiff and Recorder for Cockermouth, as well as the Coroner for the Seigniory of Millom. Ann Cookson, on the other hand, was the daughter of Wordsworth Cookson, a linen-draper, and Dorothy Crackanthorpe, a member of a gentry family in Westmorland.

In 1766, John and Ann tied the knot, with John aged 26 and Ann just 18. Leveraging his connections with the Lowther family, John relocated his family to a grand mansion in Cockermouth, situated in the captivating Lake District.

William Wordsworth was the second of five siblings born to John and Ann. His elder brother, Robert, pursued a career in law, while his sister, Dorothy, who would later become a poet and diarist, arrived a year after William. John, the youngest brother, also embraced poetry until his tragic death in a shipwreck in 1805. The family's youngest member, Christopher, eventually became a scholar and rose to the position of Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Despite his father's aloofness, William received an early education in poetry from him, delving into the works of renowned poets such as Milton, Shakespeare, and Spenser. Additionally, young Wordsworth spent his formative years in Cockermouth, where he developed a strong connection with the natural landscapes of the Lake District.

Seeking Solace in Nature

Throughout his youth, Wordsworth faced challenges in his relationships with certain family members, particularly his grandparents and uncle. These difficulties further intensified his inclination towards nature as a source of solace and inspiration.

A pivotal moment in Wordsworth's early life was the passing of his mother, Ann, in Penrith in March 1778, possibly due to pneumonia. This loss had a profound impact on the family, especially John Wordsworth, who was left inconsolable. As a result, John made the difficult decision to send his children away to be raised by various relatives.

William Wordsworth found refuge with his mother's family, while his sister Dorothy was entrusted to the care of Elizabeth Threlkeld, Ann's cousin, in Halifax. The separation between William and Dorothy endured for nearly a decade, marking a challenging period in their lives.

This early phase of Wordsworth's life, marked by personal loss and separation, laid the foundation for his deep connection with nature and the profound impact it would have on his poetic career.

William Wordsworth's journey as a poet and his contributions to English literature continued to evolve throughout his lifetime, leaving an indelible mark on the Romantic Age and beyond.

Early Education and Influence of His Mother

William Wordsworth's educational journey began with his mother, who taught him how to read. However, his formal schooling started at a less-than-ideal school in Cockermouth. Following the death of his mother, young Wordsworth was sent to a school in Penrith, which primarily catered to children from upper-class families. Here, he was under the tutelage of Ann Birkett, who emphasized both scholarly pursuits and participation in local traditions and festivals, such as those surrounding Easter, May Day, and Shrove Tuesday.

Although Wordsworth received instruction in the Bible and the Spectator during his time at the Penrith school, the curriculum was limited. It was during this period that he crossed paths with the Hutchinsons, particularly Mary Hutchinson, who would eventually become his wife. Despite these connections, Wordsworth's experience in Penrith was not entirely enjoyable, and he often sought refuge away from home due to a strained relationship with his grandparents.

Hawkshead Grammar School and Love for the Countryside

Wordsworth's educational path took a more promising turn when he enrolled at Hawkshead Grammar School. Here, he finally had the opportunity to immerse himself in the beauty of the countryside. Much of his education at Hawkshead focused on mathematics, complemented by a classical education that kindled his love for Latin literature.

During his time at Hawkshead School, Wordsworth boarded with Hugh and Ann Tyson in the nearby hamlet of Colthouse. The community's Quaker influence had a profound impact on Wordsworth, influencing his spiritual beliefs and pushing him towards a more direct and personal connection with the divine, distinct from traditional religious practices.

Hawkshead School also had strong ties to St. John’s College at Cambridge University. In 1787, Wordsworth became an undergraduate at Cambridge, marking the beginning of his formal higher education. In the same year, he made his debut as a writer by publishing a sonnet in The European Magazine.

Travels to France and Personal Relationships

After receiving his BA degree in 1791, Wordsworth embarked on a journey to Revolutionary France. During this time, he developed a deep affinity for the Republican movement. While in France, he fell in love with Annette Vallon, a French woman with whom he had a daughter named Caroline in 1792. Financial difficulties and the strained relationship between Britain and France compelled Wordsworth to return to England in the following year, leaving Annette and Caroline behind.

Although it's often suggested that he did not want to marry Annette, Wordsworth continued to provide support to both Annette and Caroline throughout his life. Due to the complexities of the era, including the French Revolution and diplomatic tensions between England and France, he couldn't reunite with them until 1802.

The Peace of Amiens in 1802 allowed Wordsworth to visit France once again. During this visit, he and his sister Dorothy went to Calais to see Annette and Caroline. Remarkably, Caroline, who was now nine, had never met her father before this visit.

Wordsworth's primary reason for this visit was to inform Annette about his forthcoming marriage to Mary Hutchinson. However, Mary felt that Wordsworth should do more for Caroline. In 1816, when Caroline married, Wordsworth agreed to settle £30 per year on her, a financial arrangement that continued until 1835 when it was replaced by a capital settlement.

The interplay of education, personal relationships, and historical events significantly shaped Wordsworth's life and poetry, influencing the themes and perspectives that would later define his literary contributions.

Debut Publications and Support from Raisley Calvert

In 1793, William Wordsworth achieved a significant milestone in his literary career with the publication of his first poetry collections, "An Evening Walk" and "Descriptive Sketches." These early works marked his entry into the world of poetry. Notably, in 1795, Wordsworth received a legacy of £900 from Raisley Calvert, enabling him to dedicate more time to writing poetry and pursue his passion.

The Birth of a Literary Partnership

In 1795, an encounter that would shape the course of English literature occurred when Wordsworth crossed paths with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Somerset. This meeting sparked a profound friendship between the two poets. Their shared love for poetry and literature laid the foundation for a creative partnership that would become a cornerstone of the English Romantic movement.

Lyrical Ballads: A Collaborative Masterpiece

The creative synergy between Wordsworth and Coleridge led to the production of "Lyrical Ballads" in 1798. Although neither poet was explicitly credited as the author, this collection contained two of their most iconic works: Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." These poems are celebrated as quintessential pieces of Romantic literature.

Wordsworth's Influence on the Second Edition

In the second edition of "Lyrical Ballads" published in 1800, William Wordsworth was listed as the sole author. This edition also included a preface to the poems, a document now regarded as a fundamental work in the realm of Romantic literary theory. In his preface, Wordsworth articulated his vision for a new type of poetry—one grounded in the "real language of men" and free from the poetic diction prevalent in much 18th-century poetry.

The Final Edition and Literary Evolution

The fourth and final edition of "Lyrical Ballads" was released in 1805. This edition showcased the culmination of Wordsworth's poetic evolution and contributions to the Romantic movement.

Travels, Creativity, and "The Borderers"

In 1798, William Wordsworth embarked on a journey to Germany alongside his sister, Dorothy, and Coleridge. While Coleridge found the trip intellectually stimulating, Wordsworth experienced homesickness during his time abroad.

During the years 1795–1797, Wordsworth ventured into playwriting, resulting in his only play, "The Borderers." Set during the reign of King Henry III of England, the play explored conflicts between Englishmen in the North Country and Scottish border reivers. However, when Wordsworth attempted to have the play staged in November 1797, it faced rejection from Thomas Harris, the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, who deemed it unlikely to succeed in a theatrical representation.

The Prelude and "The Lucy Poems"

Despite his homesickness in Germany, Wordsworth began crafting an autobiographical work that would later be titled "The Prelude." During his time in Goslar, he penned several notable poems, including "The Lucy poems." These poems captured his frustration and anxiety, and it has been suggested that they served as a means for Wordsworth to express his emotions, perhaps even containing subconscious desires regarding his sister's fate.

William Wordsworth's literary journey was marked by collaborations, personal explorations, and a dedication to reshaping poetry. His role in the creation of "Lyrical Ballads" and his evolving poetic philosophy left an enduring legacy in the annals of English literature.

Return to England and the Lake District

In the autumn of 1799, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy returned to England and paid a visit to the Hutchinson family at Sockburn. Soon after, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge returned to England, he joined Joseph Cottle, their publisher, in traveling north to meet Wordsworth. Together, they embarked on a tour of the scenic Lake District.

Wordsworth and Dorothy decided to settle in the Lake District, specifically at Dove Cottage in Grasmere. Their neighbor was another poet, Robert Southey. Together, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey became known as the "Lake Poets." During this period, many of Wordsworth's poems revolved around themes of death, endurance, separation, and grief, inspired by the natural beauty of the Lake District.

Marriage and Family

In 1802, William Wordsworth received a significant sum of £4,000 from William Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale. This money was owed to Wordsworth's father due to the Earl's failure to pay his aide. It was this financial windfall that allowed Wordsworth to marry.

Following a visit with Dorothy to France to resolve matters with Annette Vallon, Wordsworth married his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson on October 4, 1802. Dorothy continued to live with the newlywed couple and formed a close bond with Mary.

Mary and Wordsworth had five children together. Tragically, two of their children, Thomas and Catherine, passed away at a young age. Their eldest child, Rev. John Wordsworth MA, born on June 18, 1803, and later became Vicar of Brigham, Cumberland, and Rector of Plumbland, Cumberland. He married four times and had seven children with two of his wives.

Mary and Wordsworth's daughter, Dora, was born on August 16, 1804, and sadly, she passed away on July 9, 1847. The couple also had a son, William "Willy" Wordsworth, born on May 12, 1810. He married Fanny Graham and had four children, further expanding the Wordsworth family.

"The Prelude": A Biography of the Mind

In 1799, William Wordsworth completed an early version of "The Prelude," a deeply introspective work that serves as a biography of his intellectual and emotional growth, spanning from his childhood to the contemporary period. This remarkable piece of literature provides a vivid account of Wordsworth's joyful early experiences in Cockermouth, with a particular emphasis on his connection to the River Derwent and the presence of Cockermouth Castle.

The narrative of "The Prelude" then transitions to his time at Hawkshead, largely skipping over his interactions with his mother's family. Interestingly, Wordsworth initially referred to "The Prelude" as the "poem to Coleridge" and envisioned it as an appendix to a larger work he planned to write, known as "The Recluse."

Expanding "The Prelude" and the Publication Dilemma

In 1804, Wordsworth decided to expand "The Prelude" from an appendix into a prologue. He completed this autobiographical work, now generally referred to as the first version of "The Prelude," in 1805. However, he was hesitant to publish such a deeply personal piece until he had completed the entirety of "The Recluse," the larger work it was meant to introduce.

"Poems, in Two Volumes": A Bid for Reputation

In 1807, Wordsworth published "Poems, in Two Volumes," a collection that included his renowned poem, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood." At this time, Wordsworth was primarily known for "Lyrical Ballads," and he hoped that this new collection would solidify his reputation as a poet. However, the reception of the collection did not meet his high expectations.

Estrangement and Personal Loss

By 1810, Wordsworth's relationship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge had become strained, largely due to Coleridge's struggle with opium addiction. Tragedy struck Wordsworth's life when his two young children, Thomas and Catherine, passed away in 1812.

Relocation and Financial Support

In late 1812, Lord Lonsdale offered to provide £100 per year to support Wordsworth and his family until a salaried position became available. Initially hesitant to accept such financial assistance, Wordsworth eventually agreed. In January 1813, he acknowledged the receipt of payment. With the prospect of economic security, the Wordsworths, including Dorothy, relocated to Rydal Mount in May 1813, which would become the poet's final residence.

The Prospectus and "The Excursion"

In 1814, Wordsworth published "The Excursion," which constituted the second part of his ambitious three-part work, "The Recluse." Remarkably, he released this portion even though he had not completed the first or third parts, and ultimately never did. However, he did write a poetic Prospectus for "The Recluse," outlining the structure and intentions of the entire work. This Prospectus contains some of Wordsworth's most famous lines, delving into the intricate relationship between the human mind and the natural world.

As Wordsworth's life experiences and circumstances evolved, his literary output also underwent changes, with some critics noting a shift in his work during this period, possibly influenced by the resolution of many of his earlier themes of loss, death, endurance, separation, and abandonment in both his writing and personal life.

Reconciliation with Coleridge

In 1823, William Wordsworth faced a profound loss when his friend William Green passed away. This event prompted him to rekindle his relationship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with whom he had experienced a strained friendship. By 1828, they had once again become friends, and they embarked on a tour of the Rhineland together.

Family and Loss

However, personal challenges continued to shape Wordsworth's life. In 1829, his sister Dorothy fell ill and was left disabled for the remainder of her life. Samuel Taylor Coleridge passed away in 1834, but Wordsworth continued to pay special attention to Coleridge's son, Hartley, who was a minor poet and biographer. Hartley had been the child addressed in Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" and Wordsworth's "To H.C. Six Years Old." He also served as the inspiration for the child depicted in the Immortality Ode. Despite Hartley's somewhat idle nature, Wordsworth took a keen interest in his well-being. Tragically, Hartley passed away in 1849, just a few months before Wordsworth himself. Following Hartley's death, Wordsworth instructed that he be buried in the Wordsworth plot in Grasmere Churchyard.

Continued Popularity and Honors

Despite the losses he experienced, Wordsworth remained a popular and respected figure, surrounded by friends and acquaintances. In 1838, he received an honorary doctorate in Civil Law from the University of Durham. The following year, the University of Oxford bestowed upon him the same honorary degree, with John Keble praising him as the "poet of humanity." In 1842, the government awarded Wordsworth a Civil List pension of £300 per year.

Appointment as Poet Laureate and a Creative Halt

After the death of Robert Southey in 1843, Wordsworth was appointed as Poet Laureate. Initially hesitant to accept the honor due to his age, he ultimately agreed when Prime Minister Robert Peel assured him that no official verses would be required of him. Consequently, Wordsworth became the only poet laureate to refrain from composing official poems. The death of his daughter Dora in 1847, at the age of 42, plunged Wordsworth into a deep depression, leading him to cease writing new material.

Passing and Legacy

William Wordsworth passed away on April 23, 1850, at his home in Rydal Mount, succumbing to an aggravated case of pleurisy. He was eighty years old. His final resting place is St Oswald's Church in Grasmere. Following his death, his widow, Mary, published his extensive autobiographical work, the "Poem to Coleridge," as "The Prelude" several months later.

Historical Significance and Legacy

While "The Prelude" did not immediately capture public interest upon its posthumous publication, it has since been recognized as Wordsworth's magnum opus. Alongside "Lyrical Ballads," it solidified Wordsworth's status as one of the founding figures of English Romanticism and one of its central and influential intellects.

Wordsworth's poetry is celebrated for its lyrical cadence, his effortless mastery of language, and his ability to draw comparisons between nature and everyday life. His work evokes a spiritual and emotional connection with readers, a quality that continues to be studied and appreciated to this day. William Wordsworth's enduring legacy in the world of literature remains a testament to his profound influence on Romantic poetry and the enduring power of his words.

Why is William Wordsworth considered one of the central writers of the romantic period?

William Wordsworth is considered one of the central writers of the Romantic period because his poems:

  • Celebrate the beauty and spiritual connection to nature.
  • Emphasize emotion and imagination over reason.
  • Focus on ordinary people and their experiences.
  • Draw from his own life and memories.
  • Critique urbanization and industrialization.
  • Explore the concept of the sublime in nature.
  • Co-authored "Lyrical Ballads," a key Romantic poetry collection.
His work embodies the core themes and ideals of Romanticism, making him a central figure in this literary movement.

Why did William Wordsworth often use repetition in his poetry?

William Wordsworth often used repetition in his poetry to emphasize and evoke a sense of rhythm, reinforce key themes and ideas, and create a musical quality in his verses. Repetition in poetry can serve several purposes, including:

  1. Emphasis: Repeating words, phrases, or lines can highlight their significance and draw the reader's attention to specific ideas or emotions.
  2. Rhythm and Musicality: Repetition of sounds or syllables can create a pleasing rhythmic pattern in the poem, making it more enjoyable to read or listen to.
  3. Emotional Impact: Repetition can intensify the emotional impact of a poem by reinforcing feelings or concepts, evoking a sense of urgency or passion.
  4. Memorability: Poems with repetitive elements are often more memorable, as the repetition aids in retention.
  5. Reflecting Nature: Wordsworth, as a Romantic poet focused on nature, used repetition to mirror the repetitive and cyclical patterns found in the natural world, such as the seasons or the flow of a river.
  6. Connection to the Reader: By repeating certain words or phrases, Wordsworth aimed to establish a connection with the reader, inviting them to engage more deeply with the poem's themes.

Overall, Wordsworth's use of repetition contributed to the unique style and impact of his poetry, aligning with the Romantic emphasis on emotion, nature, and the human experience.

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