William Wordsworth – Part 2

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Continued from Part 1

Between late August in late September 1795 Wordsworth met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the most important meeting of his life. It was to determine their destinies as poets.

The essayist William Hazlitt visited the two poets and remembers listening to Wordsworth’s recent lyrical poems read out. He writes that “the sense of a new style and a new spirit in poetry came over me. It had to me something of the effect that arises from the turning up of the fresh soil, or the first welcome breath of spring…” (see Anthology, 780- 781).

In many of the poems that Wordsworth wrote during this period he explores how the receptive heart knows the ubiquity of suffering. He writes about the common people and their difficulties. He focuses on the human, using the language of conversation. His poetry was serving political ends. He wanted to defamiliarise conventional poetry by choosing new subject matter for poetry.

lyrical_ballads_coverAll of this led to The Lyrical Ballads in 1798, the joint production of Wordsworth and Coleridge and the fruit of the year in which they given each other love and intellectual companionship without holding back.

In 1798, Coleridge and the Wordsworths set off for Germany. They had very different experiences there. Coleridge returned with the knowledge that his life’s work would have a European horizon. Wordsworth, by contrast, holed up in the small town of Goslar, worked on his Lucy and Matthew poems and missed the English countryside. In these poems he presents loss as a constant and unavoidable component of human existence. He also begins to work on reclaiming his childhood memories for the Prelude, beginning with an image of himself at four years old swimming in the Derwent and standing alone, “a naked savage in the thunder shower” (1799, 26, Anthology 449). He describes bird nesting, rowing on Ullswater Lake and hooting to the owls across the Windermere. Dorothy describes the turbulent impulses which drove Wordsworth to compose so much verse at this time in her journal. By the time he’d left Goslar, he’d written a 400 line poem on his early years. The idea running through the poem is that despite all the loss and pain of his life he has survived to become not only a joyful man but a creative one. He describes the pleasures and pleasing terrors of childhood and reflects on the power of the memory to provide an image of the self that is coherent and has evolved and also the memory’s power to derive nourishment from the past which can sustain the present and the future.

The Wordsworths returned to England and settled in the area of their childhood, the Lake District of Yorkshire. Wordsworth would spend the rest of his life here. Dorothy and William’s first home was Dove Cottage.


The love between Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy was very strong. However intense their love though, it was never exclusive. They always included very many others in this circle, including the Hutchinson sisters Mary and Sara. In 1802 Wordsworth marries Mary Hutchinson. Before he does this he visits Annette Vallon and his daughter Caroline with Dorothy. During the visit to France Wordsworth wrote poems that expressed his longing for England (208). Wordsworth married Mary in October and Dorothy felt a great sense of displacement. She did not attend the wedding.

In the second edition of The Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth provided a very critical assessment of The Ancient Mariner (see, anthology 509) while also defending his own poem the Thorn (anthology 375, note on it: 507) which readers had found very uncomfortable. This undermined Coleridge’s confidence but it also signalled Wordsworth’s overriding determination to speak to the public in his own voice. He sets out his principles of poetry in the preface. This is a very important document. He describes how he takes subjects from low and rustic life and that these lead him close to essential human nature. By choosing such subjects the poet does not only come close to essential human nature “but to the source of a truly philosophical language”. The most important things in human life are to be found in the “great and simple affections of our nature” and not in the world of refined manners and educated speech. As Hazlitt put it, Wordsworth’s muse is a levelling one.

Wordsworth identifies the city’s new technologies and rapid communication as reasons why the discriminating power of people’s minds has been blunted. Again this is an important moment. Newspapers and magazines served the cause of barbarism rather than civilisation. This is the adversarial stance of the romantic writer.

Wordsworth spent most of 1800 revising the lyrical ballads. The following year he returned to writing poetry. Between March and June 1800 he wrote nearly 30 wonderful lyric poems, most of which dramatised the encounter between the poet and another human being, much like The Lyrical Ballads.

In 1802 Wordsworth writes another preface to another edition of The Lyrical Ballads. In this he asks what a poet is and answers:

He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul that are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volition, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volition’s and passion as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them way he does not find them…

[The poet’s art] is an acknowledgement of the beauty of the universe, an acknowledgement the more sincere, because it is not formal, but indirect; it is a task lighting easy to him who looks at the world in the spirit of love: further, it is a homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man, to the grand elementary principles of pleasure, by which he knows, and feels, and lives, and moves. [Wordsworth then goes on to define poetry as the “breath and fine spirits of all knowledge” and the poet as] the rock of defensive human nature; and upholder preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. in spite of differences soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth and over all time. The objects of the poets thoughts are everywhere; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favourite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge – it is as immortal as the heart of man.


Here Wordsworth sets out his exalted understanding of the role of the poet. It is not enough to describe the feelings of man; the poet should correct and enhance them. Wordsworth writes in a letter that the “great poet ought to “rectify men’s feelings, to give them new compositions of feeling, to render their feelings more sane, pure and permanent, in sort, more consonant to natureand the great moving spirit of things. He ought to travel before men occasionally as well as at their sides.”

Wordsworth continued to revise his poetry throughout his life. A poem for Wordsworth is always provisional. The second-generation romantics were ambivalent about Wordsworth. They acknowledged the liberatory potential of his early poetry but saw him as a political apostate. They all died before him though and he rose to eminence without their challenge. Now his early poetry spoke to a new generation who didn’t care about his political shift. They saw him as a poet of the humble life and the ordinary people. Wordsworth died in 1850 on 13 April. He is buried at Grasmere next to the lake about which he wrote in Home at Grasmere:


What happy fortune were it here to live!

And if I thought of dying, if a thought

Of mortal separation could come in

The Paradise before me, here to die.





BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time series – Lyrical Ballads


Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads – Scott McEathron