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Wordsworth, William

Childhood and university studies

William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cockermouth (now in Cumbria). He came from a relatively well-off middle class family, but his early years were severely disrupted by the death of his mother when he was eight years old and of his father when he was just 13. Until he inherited his parents’ wealth, his formative years were full of uncertainty. He was raised by members of his family and teachers at school. His childhood at Hawkshead School in the Lake District differs from that of many other contemporary poets in that it was exclusively rural and Northern. He began writing poetry when he was a teenager, and was noted by his teachers as a promising poet, publishing his first poem when he was just 16. Wordsworth went to Cambridge when he was 18 and studied Greek and Latin literature and mathematics, preferring the latter. Although he was a competent student, he was not remarkable.

Influence of the French Revolution

In 1789 the most important prison in France, the Bastille, was sacked by Parisian workmen. This encouraged adventurous young men and women to visit the country. In 1790 Wordsworth went on a walking tour in France, where he met and became the lover of a French girl called Annette Valon, who was later to bear his child, Caroline Wordsworth. The walking tour and his experience of the Revolution in France helped him to reflect on his childhood experiences in the Lake District. He returned to England in 1792, around the same time that Britain declared war on France. France’s initially peaceful revolution became violent when the revolutionaries executed their king and declared France a republic. This meant that Wordsworth was unable to visit Annette and his daughter, which upset him considerably.

London and Dorset

Back in England, Wordsworth lived in London for a time and associated with ‘radicals’ who called for political and social reform on a vast scale and often sympathised with the French Revolution. Their primary aims were to make England more democratic, to abolish slavery and the oppression of women, and to reform corrupt financial laws. Wordsworth met the philosopher William Godwin, and was greatly influenced by his philosophical system, which emphasised using reason to form a rationally justified society. Wordsworth had by now connected his early childhood experiences of nature, his adult reflections on nature and God, and his political philosophy to form a loose philosophy of life. His aim was to combine these three important experiences into poetry, which he began writing seriously in Dorset, while living with his sister Dorothy and friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His two companions had a profound influence on his philosophy of nature and childhood. The result of his walking tours and discussions with philosophers such as Godwin and Coleridge was their joint venture, the collection called Lyrical Ballads. The preface of the collection and most of the poems were written by Wordsworth. The book was published in 1798 to mixed reviews, but in later years it was acknowledged as a revolutionary collection. It was vastly different in literary style and content from the previous hundred years of English poetry, and still has an influence on literature today. A second edition with added poems was published in 1800.

The Romantics

From 1800 to 1807 Wordsworth continued to write what is considered his best poetry, although he put forward a more orthodox religious system and toned down the political content in his poems after Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth also worked on an epic poem called The Prelude, which, although it was not published until after his death, is arguably his greatest poetic accomplishment and one of the most influential long poems ever written. Wordsworth, Coleridge and their colleagues are now referred to as the Romantic movement, but we need to bear in mind that Wordsworth would not have considered himself a ‘Romantic’, as the word meant something quite different back then.

Later life

As Wordsworth grew older he became more conservative socially and politically, rejecting most of Godwin’s philosophy. He took up a job in the civil service in the North of England and campaigned for Tory MPs in Lancashire. Although later poets such as Keats, Shelley and Byron would be disappointed and disillusioned by Wordsworth’s rejection of his youthful political radicalism, his philosophy of nature and childhood was absorbed and imitated by the second generation of Romantics and the Victorians. Wordsworth was appointed Poet Laureate in 1843, a final confirmation, if any were needed, that he had abandoned his radical politics and had become a solid member of the British establishment. He died in 1850.