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Selected products from William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth was born on 7 April, 1770 in Cockermouth, in Cumbria, northwest England.
A poet of world class stature and authority his initial introduction to poetry came from his father, John Wordsworth. But his frequent absences meant that William was essentially raised by his Mother’s parents in Penrith and these times were endured by William as a painful period of conflict and dark thoughts of suicide.
But the landscape surrounding him did eventually seep into him and he would walk for many hours in the fells of the Lake District often with his sister, Dorothy, to whom he was increasingly attached.
In 1778, the young William was sent to Hawkshead Grammar School in Lancashire; he was to now be separated from Dorothy for nine years.
At Hawkshead he received an excellent education encompassing classics, literature, and mathematics, but for him there was the greater education to indulge in; the boyhood pleasures of living and playing in the outdoors. The natural scenery of the English lakes could terrify as well as nurture, as Wordsworth would write “I grew up fostered alike by beauty and by fear,”
By 1787, he had arrived at St. John’s College, Cambridge and also to publish his first poem, a sonnet for the European magazine. But he distanced himself from the competitive pressures of University life and idled his way through saying he “was not for that hour, nor for that place.”
In 1790, whilst still at Cambridge he travelled to France. He was immediately taken by the Revolutionary fervor and the confluence of a set of great ideals and rallying calls for the people of France.
Upon taking his Cambridge degree, an un-ambitious “pass”, he returned in 1791 to France, where he met and began an affair with Annette Vallon. Their illegitimate child, Anne Caroline, was born in December 1792. Wordsworth wanted to marry but returned alone to England. The beginning of hostilities between England and France meant he would not see his daughter until she was nine but he maintained his financial obligations to his daughter whilst keeping her hidden from the public gaze.
For Wordsworth this blow was compounded by the ‘Reign of Terror’ and its trampling upon the ideals of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’.
There now followed a period of three to four years that plagued Wordsworth with doubt. He was now in his early thirties but had no profession, was rootless and virtually penniless as well as being totally opposed to his country’s position on the French. He lived in London with radicals such as William Godwin and felt profound sympathy for the abandoned mothers, beggars, children, vagrants, and victims of England’s wars who began to take form in the darker, more melancholy poems he began writing at this time.
Although his career was not on track he did manage to publish two volumes, both in 1793; An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches.
This dark period ended in 1795. A legacy of £900 received from Raisley Calvert enabled Wordsworth to pursue a literary career in earnest.
This bequest almost made possible a reunion with his beloved sister Dorothy. They were never to be apart again and they moved in 1797 to Alfoxden House, near Bristol.
It was here that Wordsworth now became great friends with a fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They formed a partnership that would change both their lives and the course of English poetry.
This next year when Wordsworth and Coleridge were “together wantoned in wild Poesy,” had two direct results for Wordsworth. Firstly he moved away from the long poems he had been laboring upon; these included poems of social protest like Salisbury Plain, loco-descriptive poems such as An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, and The Borderers, a blank-verse tragedy exploring the psychology of guilt (published only in 1842).
Emboldened by Coleridge and under the marveling influences of nature and his sister, Wordsworth began to write the short lyrical and dramatic poems for which he is best remembered.
The aim of much of these short works was to provide a decisive break with the strictures of Neoclassical verse. They first appeared in 1798 in a slim, anonymously authored volume entitled Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth wrote in the preface “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” The book began with Coleridge’s long poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and ended with Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.”
All but three of the other poems were written by Wordsworth. Two years later in a preface to a second edition he wrote that their objective was “to choose incidents and situations from common life and to relate or describe them...in a selection of language really used by men...tracing in them...the primary laws of our nature.”
Most of the poems were dramatic in form, designed to reveal the character of the speaker. Thus the poems set forth a new style, a new vocabulary, and new subjects for poetry.
The second consequence of Wordsworth’s work with Coleridge was the structuring of a vastly ambitious poetic design that teased and haunted him for the rest of his life.
Coleridge had conceived of an enormous poem to be called “The Brook,” in which he proposed to treat all science, philosophy, and religion, but he soon laid the burden of writing this poem upon Wordsworth himself.
As early as 1798 Wordsworth began to talk in grand terms of this poem, to be entitled The Recluse. To nerve himself up to this enterprise and to test his powers, Wordsworth began writing the autobiographical poem that would absorb him intermittently for the next 40 years, and which was eventually published in 1850 under the title The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind.
The Recluse itself was never completed; only one of its three parts was actually written; this was published in 1814 as The Excursion and consisted of nine long philosophical monologues spoken by pastoral characters.
Wordsworth and Dorothy spent the winter of 1798–99 in Germany, where, in Goslar, in Saxony, he experienced the most intense isolation he had ever known. But the result was some of his most moving poetry, including the “Lucy” and “Matthew” elegies and early drafts toward The Prelude.
Upon his return to England, Wordsworth incorporated several of these into the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Together with the astounding work of his second verse collection, Poems, in Two Volumes (1807), it is often said that the period from 1797-1808 was Wordsworth’s great decade.
In 1802, during the Peace of Amiens, Wordsworth returned to France, and in Calais he met his daughter, Anne Caroline, and made his peace with her mother, Annette.
That done he journeyed once more back to England and to marriage with Mary Hutchinson, a childhood friend, and to start another family of three sons and two daughters, although only two children would survive.
In 1805 the drowning of Wordsworth’s favorite brother, John, the captain of a sailing vessel, gave Wordsworth the strongest shock he had ever experienced. “A deep distress hath humanized my Soul,”
In 1813, he received an appointment as Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland which had an annual income of £400 gave him the financial security to devote his spare time to poetry and to move his family into Rydal Mount, Grasmere; a beautiful location, which inspired his later poetry.
By the 1820s, the critical acclaim for Wordsworth was growing, though his poetry was losing its earlier vigor and emotional luster. For many years Wordsworth had been assailed by vicious, tireless attacks by the critics. Only with the publication of The River Duddon in 1820, did the tide begin to turn.
Many of Wordsworth’s last years were given over to tinkering and revising his poems rather than embark on new works.
His masterpiece, The Prelude, had four distinct manuscript versions (1798–99, 1805–06, 1818–20, and 1832–39) and was published only after the poet’s death in 1850.
In 1839 he received an honorary degree from Oxford University and received a civil pension of £300 a year from the government.
With the death in 1843 of his friend and Poet Laureate Robert Southey, Wordsworth was offered the position. He accepted despite saying he wouldn’t write any poetry as Poet Laureate. Indeed it is still unfortunate that Wordsworth is still the only Poet Laureate never to write any poems during his time as Poet Laureate.
Wordsworth died of pleurisy on 23 April 1850. He was buried in St Oswald’s church Grasmere.
As a poet his work is still avidly read today. He is acknowledged as one of the Romantic Poets, A Lake Poet and a writer of immense talent who gave a voice to many and varied thoughts.