The Academy

Author Navigation




William Wordsworth is arguably one of, if not the greatest of the Romantic poets.  Born at Cockermouth in England's Lakes District,  he commenced his schooling at Hawkshead English Grammar School and continued at St Johns College, Cambridge from 1787 –1791.  At the completion of his formal education Wordsworth embarked upon a walking tour of France, where he encountered  the early movements of the French Revolution.  He supported the ideals of the Revolution up until the Terror at which point he returned to England.  The ensuing war between France and Britain after the execution of Louis XVI meant that Wordsworth was unable to return to France, or to Annette Vallon with whom he had an affair, and to the couple's young daughter Caroline Wordsworth.  Whilst this caused him great distress he was not left alone as he held a great affection for his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, and he resided with her in the Lake District (with the exception of occasional travels) from 1794 until the end of his life.

Wordsworth's earliest extant verse was produced when he was as young as fifteen and he continued to write throughout his education.  Some of his earlier poems included 'An Evening Walk' (1793) and 'Descriptive Sketches' (1793) which whilst not exhibiting the uniqueness of his latter works, did foretell his pantheistic affinity with nature which became characteristic of his latter work.   

In 1795 Wordsworth met Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the two formed both an enduring friendship as well as an important literary partnership.   Together they embarked on a project which resulted in the publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798), a collection of works by both poets.  Included in the work was Coleridge's famous Rime of The Ancient Mariner, however the greater number of contributions came from Wordsworth and included 'Tintern Abbey'.  This poem is a poignant example of Wordsworth's more Pantheistic writing in which he explores his earlier conviction that nature is not  an inanimate object, but rather is something alive and active, infused with an often mysterious power which could impress itself upon the human consciousness and mould and shape the human intellect.

Whilst the individual poems contained within The Lyrical Ballads are significant of themselves, it was Wordsworth's preface to the second edition of the work in 1800 which was to leave its indelible mark on the poetic genre.  'The Preface' was meant simply as Wordsworth's explanation of his own, new style which sought to avoid the poetic conventions of the day (that employed an ostentatious but often unemotional language to describe exalted scenes), and rather take the substance of ‘common life' and render it in ‘the language really used by men'. 

The period of 1797/98 has become known as the annus mirabilis, in honor of the year of intense creativity from Wordsworth and Coleridge which in turn marked a major turning point and heralded a new era in poetic form.  As well as the production of the Lyrical Ballads, this year also saw the commencement of  work on The Prelude.  This book length poem written in blank verse is largely considered to be Wordsworth's crowning achievement and it forms, in effect, and introspective examination of his own life's journey.  Also written during this period were the collection of lyric poems which have become known collectively as the “Lucy” poems.  The identity of Lucy in these works has never been discovered, although some have speculated that the character may well be representative of Dorothy Wordsworth.  The “Lucy” poems include such titles as 'Three Years She Grew In Sun and Shower', 'Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known' and 'A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal'. These poems were published as part of the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1800.

Over time Wordsworth became increasingly preoccupied with old age and mortality (both his and that of those around him - especially his sister Dorothy), while at the same time he gradually became dissatisfied with Pantheism's ability to provide hope or any kind of promise of an afterlife.  The results of this quest for meaning and promise was Wordsworth's shift back to his childhood roots in traditional Christianity.  In 1807 he published Poems in Two Volumes which is credited with containing some of the poets finest works including an autobiographical narrative poem  'Resolution and Independence' and many of his best-known Sonnets, however it is the notable 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality' that most keenly reflects the shift in his faith and establishes a new philosophical approach for his future works.

Although Wordsworth lived a long life compared to many of his contemporaries, and was writing productively for most of this time - producing an accordingly large collection of works, his latter efforts fail to inspire the attention of his earlier volumes.  Between 1814 and 1822 his published works included The Excursion (1814) which is an attempted extension of  The Prelude but lacks its greatness, The White Doe of Rylstone (1815) and Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822).  The Recluse is a work began by Wordsworth in 1800 and worked on throughout his life, however it remained unfinished and was eventually published posthumously in 1888.

Unlike many in his day, Wordsworth lived to see the fruits of his labors, enjoying the ongoing attention of his contemporaries, readers and critics alike.  He succeeded Robert Southey as Poet laureate in 1837 and in 1842 was awarded a government pension.  Wordsworth died on April 23, 1850 and was buried in the churchyard at Grasmere.




Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National