Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | Study Guide

William Wordsworth

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Poems of William Wordsworth (Selected) | Context


Literary Romanticism

Wordsworth is one of the most important Romantic writers. The Romantic movement is generally dated from the last decade of the eighteenth century through the first decades of the nineteenth. Some critics point to 1798 and the appearance of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads that year as the actual starting point of the movement. Romanticism existed as a way of thought and looking at the world in British culture as well as many European countries and the United States. It influenced all the arts, not only literature. Writers associated with Romanticism worked independently, though some, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, collaborated despite having very different views. At the time, "Romanticism" was not used as an identifier. In the words of Wordsworth scholar Alan Gardiner, "It is only in the twentieth century that Romanticism has come into use as a term for a particular set of opinions on thought, emotion, and art."

Among its leading characteristics are the following:

  • a close feeling for nature
  • an interest in expressing the ideas from past literature in new, more meaningful ways
  • a determination to live by different political ideas and encourage changes in society
  • an emphasis on youth and childhood as purer and more useful for understanding than adult wisdom
  • the search for new horizons and liberation of the passions, rather than following rational wisdom
  • a preference for rural over urban living
  • a reliance on the imagination to create a new reality from the external world
  • an emphasis on individual consciousness over collective expression
  • a value for land over factory production at a time of great industrial development

At the time of the 2015 death of M.H. Abrams, a leading Wordsworth scholar, the obituary writer Christopher Hawtree observed that whereas in the past, art had reflected reality, in Wordsworth's poetry it tended to illuminate it from within by revealing the soul and nature of things. Past ideas were brought back to life in the Romantic movement, a time of "continuous political, industrial, and social revolution and disorder."

Also discussing Romanticism in poetry, critic Ophelia Benson wrote on Wordsworth that poetry need not be contrasted with history as the play of fiction against fact. It treats things not as they are, but as they seem to be to the senses and passions, worked on by the imagination. Benson, having read Abrams, says in Wordsworth all is feeling, not fact. Referring to The Prelude episode where the young boy fears being pursued by a mountain after borrowing a boat, "It may not be true that a mountain is full of meaning, but people feel that way, and it leads to poetry. The poets are alive to natural beauty, an illusion but a necessary one."

Wordsworth and Coleridge

Though many of Wordsworth's poems speak of the joys of solitude, he was influenced all his life by external forces—people, places, and events. Aside from his devoted sister Dorothy, the closest collaboration came from poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They met as young men in 1795 and began a literary partnership of great importance. According to author Margaret Drabble, they "had a highly stimulating effect on each other; their views on literature and politics were similar without being identical, and together they conceived the idea of the 'Lyrical Ballads'... which they published jointly and anonymously in two editions."

Wordsworth and his sister moved to live closer to Coleridge and his wife so the men could collaborate on their work. The Ballads were to be equally written, according to a plan they had to emphasize their literary strengths. Coleridge was to write more of the supernatural poems, and Wordsworth was to write in the everyday and common speech his friend admired and encouraged in him. But Coleridge was the more unstable in character, missing all deadlines and being personally unhappy and often unproductive. He eventually contributed only "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," while Wordsworth produced far more copious amounts of writing.

Wordsworth dedicated all of The Prelude to Coleridge under the influence of his friend's appreciation for his poetic gifts, and the epic can be seen as fulfilling that judgment. Critic and famed poet Seamus Heaney calls Coleridge "his Virgil ... the guiding philosophical poet ... the guardian not just of Wordsworth's well-being but also of his moral being ... his poetic ambition ... and by now surely focused life." The allusion is to the role played by the work of the Roman poet Virgil on Dante's Divine Comedy, in which the ancient serves as a guide to the pilgrim in the afterlife.

Margaret Drabble credits Coleridge with the development of Wordsworth's use of long sentences and constructions, often among his most quoted insights. But the friendship could not endure. Coleridge, who took opium, "led a tormented and unhappy life; he suffered from continual ill-health ... he quarreled with all his friends, including the Wordsworths, and he lost his poetic gifts." Drabble says Wordsworth may have been so troubled by his friend's miseries, "his wretched wanderings ... and dreadful nightmares," that he chose to cultivate peace and tranquility in his own middle age with a stable and growing family life and prosperity. The two men were seriously estranged in 1810 after critical remarks Wordsworth made were reported back to Coleridge, and their closeness never fully returned. Coleridge died in 1834.

Coleridge had been an important literary voice on Wordsworth's poetry. At times he found his friend failed to distinguish between what critic Geoffrey Hartman calls "self-established convictions and generally accepted truths" and mixed the truths of his own perceptions with those of others. The tendency to what Coleridge called mental "bombast" or inflated language came to figure in the decline in Wordsworth's reputation in the decades before his death in 1850, by which time he was viewed as overly Romantic, tedious, and out of date.

Wordsworth and France

Wordsworth was born in rural England and lived most of his life there, but his experiences in France had a profound impact on his life and work. He first traveled to France in 1790 for a youthful hiking exploration. It led to memorable adventures crossing the Alps near the border areas with Switzerland and Italy, especially with regard to his experiences with nature. He returned to Paris in 1791 in the early days of the French Revolution, filled with expectation for great events and effects that would change society. The need to leave England and experience the world was part of his openness to change and exploration, and he was exhilarated by the sense of participating in history. One day after arriving in France, he participated in celebrations marking the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. The prison had become a symbol of the French monarchy and its abuses of power.

This second residency in France lasted a year. He spent the year traveling in the country and saw changes in the course of history that disappointed his ideals about the liberation of human rights. He had hoped that a republican form of government could succeed the monarchy without excessive violence or war. Instead, the "Reign of Terror" of the Revolution deeply depressed him.

During this year he made friendships that changed him forever. His romantic liaison with Annette Vallon led to the birth of their daughter Anne-Caroline in 1792 and gave him an enduring connection that he openly acknowledged. Although he was forced by lack of funds to return to England shortly before his daughter's birth, he wrote of her in his poetry. Years after, in 1802, he returned to France before his own marriage to meet his daughter and see her mother again. He continued to support Caroline, as she was called, after his own marriage and the birth of his five other children.

He also made the acquaintance of Captain Michel de Beaupuy. Beaupuy was a rarity in late 18th-century France. Both an aristocrat and an ardent supporter of the Revolution, he further influenced Wordsworth's nascent political beliefs. In fact, it might have been Beaupuy who ultimately converted Wordsworth to France's more moderate Jacobin cause. Beaupuy's friendship mattered greatly to Wordsworth. He continued to believe in the ideals of the Revolution, but after returning to England and hearing of the violence in France late in 1793, he found it harder to hold to his views. By 1795 he could no longer support France, and he felt further confusion over the War of 1812 between France and Great Britain. Accused in 1821 of having betrayed France, he asserted, "I have stuck to principles. I have abandoned France and her rulers when they abandoned Liberty."

As Wordsworth became a famous figure in the literary world, his youthful ideals about France remained as memories. He largely stayed in his rural home as he aged, though he did make several trips abroad and saw his daughter for the last time in 1837.

The breadth of his vision and experience was considerable at the time, and the ideals of human vision and betterment that he associated with France were part of the legacy of the work he left behind at his death in 1850. As a young man there was little that was foreign to him in people, and though publicly he became increasingly conservative in maturity, he learned much from his long and longed-for connection with France, so near England and yet so different.

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