William Wordsworth: Introduction to his Life and Works – Part 1

wordsworth2(Main Source: Gill, S. 1989. William Wordsworth : A Life. Clarendon Press. This very readable biography can be found in the library)

Wordsworth changed forever the way we view the natural world and the inner world of feeling. He also connected the two indivisibly.


William Wordswoth’s  name is inextricably connected with the Lake District, where he was born in Cockermouth in 1770.

Despite the deep experiences in nature that Wordsworth describes in The Prelude, his childhood was not an easy one. He lost his mother when he was eight. With his father’s death he lost his home and the family began to break up. He would only see his sister Dorothy again nine years later.  They lived together for the remainder of their lives and she was central to his development as a poet (see Tintern Abbey). Reconvening this family in different ways was always something that Wordsworth sought to do later in his life. The homelessness of his childhood, it has been said, also led to his sympathy for vagrants and wanderers.

lakesThe story of his early life – his schooldays, his education at Cambridge, his wanderings in France, his response to the French revolution, his love of his sister Dorothy and his passionate friendship with Coleridge – are told in his great autobiographical work in blank verse, The Prelude, most of which written when he was in his 30s. It is a work of astonishing originality, both in its subject matter (childhood and the growth of the mind, described with a pre-Freudian insight unprecedented in literature) and in its form.

Wordsworth was perhaps the most sober of the great romantics, a water drinker, a walker of the hills, an exemplary family man who had put behind him (though he had not denied) a youthful indiscretion and an illegitimate daughter. He invested his hopes in family life and domesticity, in plain living and high thinking, with a tenderness towards his children inherited from the newly child-conscious theories of the enlightenment. In 1812, the Wordsworths tragically lost a little daughter and a son.

As he grew older, he lost some of  his poetic powers, and he had premonitions of this, expressed in his Immortality Ode (1802-4) and most famously in his 1802 poem on the leech gatherer, ‘Resolution and Independence’. He was also thinking of his friend, Samuel Taylor Colreidge in this poem who struggled with a failed marriage, depression and opium addiction.

We poets in our youth begin in gladness

But thereof come in the end despondency and madness

goodyWordsworth’s own representation of his life in his poetry and other writing emphasises the importance of the formative experiences of childhood. While he is famous as a poet of nature, it must be remembered that he is also the poet of the enigmatic encounter between people.

During his schooldays and especially on his walks around the countryside, Wordsworth met many ordinary people, and these later became much of the subject matter and materials for his poetry.
He would say in a letter in 1802 that “people in our rank of life are perpetually falling into one sad mistake, namely, that of supposing that human nature and the persons they associate with are one and the same thing”.

What emerges from the Prelude and it is something that he attributed to his childhood, something that he learns as a child, is that one of the chief attributes of the poetic mind is watchfulness and awareness. Another very important quality is a recognition of the importance of the past and its part in a person’s development. Wordsworth’s education was formed from two chief components. The first was a good education at school, especially a sound foundation in the classics and the sciences. But this was not enough. The other great school he attended was nature itself. All Wordsworth’s poetry is marked by his feeling his attachment to and feeling for a particular place and locale. It is also marked by his conviction that his own feelings were worth exploring in depth. Nature for Wordsworth has a mysterious power to nourish and repair the mind. In his poetry, memory, joy and fear, loss and gain, work together.

From school Wordsworth went to Cambridge. He then went on a walking tour of France in which he walked nearly 2000 km in three months.

simplon_passOne of the most famous parts of The Prelude concerns Wordsworth’s crossing of the Simplon Pass

vallonThe motivation for his journey was more to see the Alps than to experience the French Revolution, which was in full force at the time. Wordsworth returned to France in1791. One possible reason is that he saw the revolution as the embodiment of acceptable enlightenment ideas and wanted to see more of revolutionary France. By this time Wordsworth had met many prominent radicals and reformers. 1792 turned out to be a momentous year for Wordsworth. He became a father in December after he had met Annette Vallon earlier in the year. He also became a supporter of the French cause and attended sessions of the legislative assembly in Paris.

Continued …… Part 2


BBC Radio 4 In Our Time series – The Prelude


The Two-Part “Prelude” of 1798-99 – Jonathan Wordsworth and Stephen Gill