The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth (April 7, 1770April 23, 1850) was an English poet who with Samuel Taylor Coleridge launched the Romantic Age in English literature with the 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads. His masterpiece is generally considered to be The Prelude, an autobiographical poem of his early years.

Wordsworth was born as the second of five children in Cockermouth, Cumberland—part of the scenic region in northwest England called the Lake District. With the death of his mother in 1778, his father sent him to Hawkshead Grammar School. But in 1783, his father, a lawyer, and right-hand man of the most important (and despised) man in the area, died leaving little to his offspring (the Earl of Lonsdale owed his attorney 4500, but, despite a judgment against him, did not pay it. His son, however, paid a substantial portion of it in 1802). Although many aspects of his boyhood were positive, he recalled bouts of loneliness and anxiety. It took him many years, and much writing, to recover from the death of his parents.

Wordsworth began attending St John's College, Cambridge in 1787. In 1790, he visited Revolutionary France and supported the Republican movement. The following year, he graduated from Cambridge without distinction. In November, he returned to France and took a walking tour of Europe that included the Alps and Italy. He fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon and in 1792 she gave birth to their child, Caroline. Because of lack of money and Britain's tensions with France, he returned alone to England that year, but he supported Vallon and his daughter as best he could in later life. The Reign of Terror estranged him from the Republican movement and war between France and Britain prevented him from seeing Annette and Caroline again for several years.

1793 saw Wordsworth's first published poetry with the collections An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches. He received a legacy of 900 from Raisley Calvert in 1795 so that he could pursue writing poetry. That year, he also met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Somerset. The two poets quickly developed a close friendship. In 1797, Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, moved to Somerset, just a few miles away from Coleridge's home in Nether Stowey. Together, Wordsworth and Coleridge (with insights from Dorothy) produced Lyrical Ballads (1798), an important work in the English Romantic movement. One of Wordsworth's most famous poems, "Tintern Abbey" was published in the work, along with Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner".

Wordsworth, Dorothy, and Coleridge then travelled to Germany. During the extremely harsh winter of 1798-1799, Wordsworth with Dorthy lived in Goslar, and despite extreme stress and loneliness, he began work on an autobiographical piece later titled The Prelude. He also wrote a number of famous poems, including "the Lucy poems." He and his sister moved back to England, now to Grasmere in the Lake District, and this time with fellow poet Robert Southey nearby. Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge came to be known as the "Lake Poets".

In 1802, he and Dorothy travelled to France to visit Annette and Caroline. Later that year, he married a childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson. Dorothy did not appreciate the marriage at first, but lived with the couple and later grew close to Mary. The following year, Mary gave birth to the first of five children, John.

Both Coleridge's health and his relationship to Wordsworth began showing signs of decay in 1804. That year Wordsworth befriended Robert Southey. With Napoleon's rise as emperor of France, Wordsworth's last wisp of liberalism fell, and from then on he identified himself as a conservative.

Wordsworth had for years been making plans to write a long philosophical poem in three parts, which he intended to call The Recluse. He had in 1798-99 started an autobiographical poem, which he never named but called the "poem to Coleridge", which would serve as an appendix to The Recluse. In 1804 he began expanding this autobiographical work, having decided to make it a prologue rather than an appendix to the larger work he planned. By 1805, he had completed it, but refused to publish so personal a work until he should have completed the whole of The Recluse. The death of his brother, John, in 1805 had a strong influence on him.

In 1807, his Poems in Two Volumes was published, including "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood". Up to this point Wordsworth was known publicly only for Lyrical Ballads, and he hoped this collection would cement his reputation. Its reception was only lukewarm, however. For a time, Wordsworth and Coleridge were estranged over the latter's opium addiction.

Two of his children, Thomas and Catherine, died in 1812. The following year, he moved to Rydal Mount, Ambleside where he spent the rest of his life.

In 1814 he published The Excursion as the second part of the three-part The Recluse. He had not completed the first and third parts, and never would complete them. Some modern critics recognize a decline in his works beginning around the mid-1810s. But this decline was perhaps more a change in his lifestyle and beliefs, since most of the issues that charaterize his early poety (loss, death, endurance, separation, abandonment) were resolved in his writings. But, by 1820 he enjoyed the success accompanying a reversal in the contemporary critical opinion of his earlier works.

Dorothy suffered from a severe illness in 1829 that rendered her an invalid for the remainder of her life. In 1835, Wordsworth gave Annette and Caroline the money they needed for support. The government awarded him a civil list pension amounting to 300 a year in 1842.

William Wordsworth, reproduced from Margaret Gillies' 1839 original
William Wordsworth, reproduced from Margaret Gillies' 1839 original

With the death in 1843 of Robert Southey, Wordsworth became the Poet Laureate. When his daughter, Dora, died in 1847, his production of poetry came to a standstill. William Wordsworth died in Rydal Mount in 1850 and was buried at St Oswald's Church in Grasmere.

His widow Mary published his lengthy autobiographical "poem to Coleridge" as The Prelude several months after his death. Though this failed to arouse great interest in 1850, it has since come to be recognized as his masterpiece.

The lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge, in particular their collaboration on the "Lyrical Ballads", are treated in the 2000 film Pandaemonium.

Some notable short poems by Wordsworth that demonstrate his simple yet powerful use of english: I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, O Nightingale! Thou Surely Art, and We Are Seven.

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Preceded by:
Robert Southey
British Poet Laureate Succeeded by:
Alfred Tennyson

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