Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | Study Guide

William Wordsworth

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William Wordsworth | Biography

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Childhood and Education

William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England on April 7, 1770. He was the second of five children born to John Wordsworth, a lawyer and rent collector, and his wife, Anne. The children lost their mother in 1778, and at age nine the boy was sent to a local grammar school near Windermere, England. The setting figures in the first two books of The Prelude. He was orphaned by age 13, and his education came under the care of his uncles. In 1787 he entered Cambridge University, where he began writing poetry. While studying at Cambridge he embarked on a long walking tour of France and Switzerland, especially the Alpine regions, that also figures in The Prelude.

In 1791, after receiving his degree from Cambridge, he returned to France, which was in the throes of the French Revolution (1789–99, social and political upheaval of the monarchy and feudal system). There he fell in love with a woman named Annette Vallon, who bore Wordsworth a daughter, Caroline, in 1792. The impoverished Wordsworth was forced to return to England, and after war broke out between the two countries he was separated from Vallon for years. Eventually he was reunited with his daughter Caroline and for many years contributed to her upbringing. His experiences in France influenced him greatly in his ideas on the need for liberation of human rights and reform of living conditions for the people.

Publication

Back in England, Wordsworth was influenced by the writing of William Godwin (1756–1836), who championed the rights of man and questioned all social controls and authority. The young poet published his earliest work in 1793 in two collections, An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches. In 1795 he went to live with his sister Dorothy in Dorset, England. He met fellow Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) and they became fast friends. In fact, he and Dorothy moved in 1797 to Alfoxden House, near the village of Nether Stowey, to be close to Coleridge. Both his sister and Coleridge had strong influences on the development of his work.

His first success came with the 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads, a collaboration with Coleridge. The landmark collection marked the beginning of the Romantic movement in English literature and included such famous poems as Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The preface Wordsworth wrote for the second edition became a Romantic manifesto for poets in many cultures. It included his famous description of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings [that] takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." It represented a sharp break with the literature of the previous century, placing great emphasis on the emotions of the individual rediscovering lost sources of natural wisdom consonant with the divine.

Wordsworth began writing his epic autobiographical poem The Prelude in 1798 while living in Germany, and he would continue writing and rewriting it for a half-century, until his death. He settled in England's Lake District in the north with Dorothy in 1799 and in 1802 traveled to France to meet with Annette Vallon and their daughter. On his return to England he married a longtime friend, Mary Hutchinson, with whom he would have five children, two of whom died in infancy. He went on to write some of his best-known poems, including "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" and "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." Both were published in his 1807 collection Poems, in Two Volumes.

Fame and Legacy When the war ended

Wordsworth was deeply affected by several family deaths. He lost a beloved brother, John, in 1805 and in 1812 experienced the deaths of two of his young children. After being named to a post as Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland, England, he moved in 1813 to another home in the Lake District in Rydal Mount, Westmorland. While he was estranged from Coleridge for a time, the other poet's praise of his work helped to spread his fame. By the 1830s Wordsworth's home was often visited by admirers who sometimes numbered in the dozens each day.

He continued to write as a public figure and became poet laureate of England in 1843, remaining in this post until his death on April 23, 1850, at age 80. The Prelude was published by his wife three months later. Among the most influential of all writers, Wordsworth remains a towering figure of the Romantic movement and one of the best-loved poets in the English language.

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