Born: April 7, 1770, Cockermouth, England
Died: April 23, 1850 (aged 80), Rydal, England
Years Active: 1973—1850
Notable Works: Lyrical Ballads (1667), The Prelude (1644)
William Wordsworth (7 April 1770 – 23 April 1850) was an English Romantic poet, best known for Lyrical Ballads (1667), which he wrote with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He and Coleridge helped to launch the Romantic Age in English literature.
Wordsworth is best known for The Prelude, which is a semi-autobiographical poem of his early years that he revised and expanded a number of times. It was not published during his lifetime, instead published a year after his death by his wife. Before being published, it was known as “the poem to Coleridge”, which shows just how close the two poets were.
Wordsworth lived until he was eighty years old, passing away in 1850 from pleurisy. From 1843 until his death, he was Poet Laureate.
William Wordsworth – Early Life
William Wordsworth was born on 7 April 1770 in Cockermouth to John Wordsworth, a legal agent for James Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale and Collector of Customs at Whitehaven, and his wife, Ann Cookson.
John was the son of Richard Wordsworth, a land owner who served as a legal agent to the Lowther family and, like his father, became a legal agent for James Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale and was made Bailiff and Recorder for Cockermouth and Coroner for the Seigniory of Millom. Anne was the daughter of Wordsworth Cookson, a linen-draper, and Dorothy Crackanthorpe, daughter of a gentry family in Westmorland.
In 1766, John and Ann married when they were 26 and 18, respectively. John used his connections with the Lowther family to move into a large mansion in the small town of Cockermouth, Cumbria, in the Lake District.
Wordsworth was the second of five children that John and Ann had. His eldest brother was Robert and became a lawyer and his sister, the poet and diarist Dorothy, was born the year after him. John was born after Dorothy and became a poet until he died in a shipwreck in 1805, and the youngest sibling was Christopher, who became a scholar and eventually Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Wordsworth did not have a close relationship with his father, although he did teach him poetry, including that of Milton, Shakespeare and Spenser. Wordsworth also spent time reading in Cockermouth, at his mother’s parents home in Penrith, particularly in the years of 1775—1777, where he was exposed to the moors and was influenced by his experience with the landscape. Wordsworth had trouble with his relatives, particularly his grandparents and his uncle, which turned him further towards nature to seek solace.
Wordsworth’s mother Ann died in Penrith in March 1778, possibly of pneumonia. Following this, John Wordsworth became inconsolable and sent his children away to be raised by relatives. Wordsworth was taken in by his mother’s family, while Dorothy was sent to live with Elizabeth Threlkeld, Ann’s cousin, in Halifax. She and Wordsworth did not meet again for another nine years.
Wordsworth was first taught to read by his mother and was sent to a low quality school in Cockermouth. Following his mother’s death, he was sent to a school in Penrith, which was a school for children of upper-class families. There, he was taught by Ann Birkett, who insisted on instilling in her students traditions that included pursuing both scholarly and local activities, especially the festivals around Easter, May Day and Shrove Tuesday.
At this school, Wordsworth was taught both the Bible and the Spectator, but little else. However, it was here that he met the Hutchinsons, including Mary, who would be his future wife. He did not enjoy his time at Penrith, finding his relationship with his grandparents difficult, and would spend a lot of time away from home.
He was sent to Hawkshead Grammar School, where he was finally fully able to enjoy the countryside. Most of his education at Hawkshead was mathematical, while the rest was based on teaching the classics. This is when Wordsworth gained his love for Latin literature.
While attending Hawkshead School, he boarded with Hugh and Ann Tyson in the nearby hamlet of Colthouse. The community had a strong Quaker influence, and Wordsworth rejected their fixation on praising God for a relationship with the divine that would involve a more direct interaction.
Hawkshead School had a strong relationship with St. John’s College, Cambridge University and, in October 1787, Wordsworth became an undergraduate there. In the same year, Wordsworth made his debut as a writer in 1787 when he published a sonnet in The European Magazine.
Wordsworth received his BA degree in 1791. He returned to Hawkshead for the first two summers of his time at Cambridge, and often spent later holidays on walking tours. In 1790 he went on a walking tour of Europe, during which he toured the Alps extensively, and visited nearby areas of France, Switzerland, and Italy.
France and Annette Vallon
Following his graduation, Wordsworth travelled to Revolutionary France and found a love for the Republican movement. Also while in France, he fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, who gave birth to his daughter, Caroline, in 1792. However, financial problems, along with Britain’s tense relationship with France, forced him to travel back to England the following year, without Annette or Caroline.
It is often thought that he returned home because he didn’t want to marry Annette, but he continued to support her and Caroline throughout his life. The French Revolution and difficult relationship between England and France prevented Wordsworth from returning to France for a number of years, which he finally did in 1802.
The Peace of Amiens allowed him to travel to France once again, where he and his sister Dorothy visited Annette and Caroline in Calais. At this time, Caroline was now nine and Wordsworth had never seen her before the visit.
The reason for Wordsworth’s visit was to tell Annette about his upcoming marriage to Mary Hutchinson. Mary felt as if Wordsworth should do more for Caroline, and so, in 1816, when Caroline married, Wordsworth settled £30 a year on her (equivalent to £2,313 as of 2019). These payments continued until 1835, when they were replaced by a capital settlement
First Publication and Lyrical Ballads
In 1793, Wordsworth’s first poetry was published. These were the collections An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, for which he received a legacy of £900 from Raisley Calvert in 1795 so that he could pursue writing poetry.
Also in 1795, Wordsworth met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Somerset and the two poets quickly developed a close friendship. In 1797, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved to Alfoxton House, Somerset, just a few miles away from Coleridge’s home in Nether Stowey.
Together, Wordsworth and Coleridge, with insights from Dorothy, produced Lyrical Ballads (1798), an important work in the English Romantic movement. Neither Wordsworth nor Coleridge were credited as authors, but two of their most famous poems were published — Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.
The second edition was published in 1800 and only had Wordsworth listed as the author. This edition included a preface to the poems which is now considered a central work of Romantic literary theory. In it, Wordsworth discusses what he sees as the elements of a new type of poetry, one based on the “real language of men” and which avoids the poetic diction of much 18th-century poetry.
The fourth and final edition of Lyrical Ballads was published in 1805.
Germany and The Borderers
In 1798, Wordsworth, Dorothy and Coleridge travelled to Germany. Coleridge found the trip intellectually stimulating, but Wordsworth was homesick.
From 1795–1797, Wordsworth wrote his only play, The Borderers. This a verse tragedy set during the reign of King Henry III of England, when Englishmen in the North Country came into conflict with Scottish border reivers. He attempted to get the play staged in November 1797, before he left for Germany, but it was rejected by Thomas Harris, the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, who proclaimed it “impossible that the play should succeed in the representation”.
Despite his homesickness in Germany, Wordsworth began working on his autobiographical piece, which would later be titled The Prelude. He wrote a number of other famous poems in Goslar, including “The Lucy poems”. These poems express the frustration and anxiety that Wordsworth was feeling and it is possible that the “Lucy” poems allowed Wordsworth to vent his frustration with his sister, and that they contain the subconscious desire for his sister to die.
In the Autumn of 1799, Wordsworth and Dorothy returned to England and visited the Hutchinson family at Sockburn. When Coleridge arrived back in England, he travelled to the North with their publisher Joseph Cottle to meet Wordsworth and undertake a tour of the Lake District.
Wordsworth and Dorothy settled at Dove Cottage in Grasmere in the Lake District, this time with another poet, Robert Southey, nearby. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey came to be known as the “Lake Poets”. Throughout this period many of Wordsworth’s poems revolved around themes of death, endurance, separation and grief.
Marriages and Children
In 1802, Lowther’s heir, William Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale, paid £4,000 to Wordsworth. This was owed to Wordsworth’s father through Lowther’s failure to pay his aide, and was the money that afforded Wordsworth the financial means to marry.
Following his visit with Dorothy to France to arrange matters with Annette, Wordsworth married his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson on 4th October 1802. Dorothy continued to live with the couple and grew close to Mary.
Mary and Wordsworth had five children, two of which died at a young age — Thomas and Catherine. Their eldest child was Rev. John Wordsworth MA (18 June 1803 – 25 July 1875) and became Vicar of Brigham, Cumberland and Rector of Plumbland, Cumberland. He married four times and had seven children with two of his wives. Mary and Wordsworth’s daughter, Dora, was born 16 August 1804 and died 9 July 1847. The couple also had a son, William “Willy” Wordsworth (12 May 1810 – 1883), who married Fanny Graham and had four children.
The Prelude and The Recluse
In 1799, Wordsworth completed a version of his The Prelude, a biography about the growth of his mind from childhood to the current time. It describes Wordsworth’s early, happy moments in Cockermouth with a particular focus on the River Derwent and Cockermouth Castle. The poem transitions into the happy moments at Hawkshead, skipping over Wordsworth’s experience with his mother’s family.
Wordsworth referred to The Prelude as the “poem to Coleridge” and which he planned would serve as an appendix to a larger work called The Recluse. In 1804 he began expanding this autobiographical work, having decided to make it a prologue rather than an appendix. He completed this work, now generally referred to as the first version of The Prelude, in 1805, but refused to publish such a personal work until he had completed the whole of The Recluse.
Poems, in Two Volumes
In 1807, Wordsworth published Poems, in Two Volumes, including “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”. Wordsworth was known only for Lyrical Ballads at this time, and he hoped that this new collection would cement his reputation. However, the reception was not as big as he hoped it to be.
Three years later, Wordsworth and Coleridge were estranged due to Coleridge’s opium addiction. Wordsworth two young children, Thomas and Catherine, died in 1812.
Following this, in late 1812, Lord Lonsdale proposed that he provide £100 a year for the support of Wordsworth and his family until a salaried position became available. Wordsworth was at first somewhat reluctant to accept the money, but he accepted, and on January 8, 1813 he wrote to acknowledge receipt of payment.
A few months later, the post of Distributor of Stamps was offered to him and, with this assurance of economic security, the Wordsworths, including Dorothy, moved to Rydal Mount, the poet’s final home, in May 1813.
In 1814, Wordsworth published The Excursion, which was the second part of the three-part work The Recluse. He published this even though he had not completed the first part or the third part, and never did.
However, he wrote a poetic Prospectus to The Recluse in which he laid out the structure and intention of the whole work, which contains some of Wordsworth’s most famous lines on the relation between the human mind and nature.
Some believe that around this time there was a decline in his work, particularly because most of the concerns that characterised his early poems (loss, death, endurance, separation and abandonment) had been resolved in his writings and his life, and he was now experiencing some success.
In 1823, Wordsworth’s friend William Green died and this prompted Wordsworth to mend his relationship with Coleridge. By 1828, the two were friends again, and they toured Rhineland together. Following an illness in 1829, Dorothy was disabled for the rest of her life.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge died in 1834, but Wordsworth continued to pay particular attention to Coleridge’s first son, Hartley, a minor poet and biographer. Hartley, the child addressed in Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and Wordsworth’s “To H.C. Six Years Old,” as well as the basis for the child represented in the Immortality Ode, was lazy and Wordsworth took a special interest in seeing to his welfare. Hartley died in 1849, only a few months before Wordsworth, who instructed that he be buried in the Wordsworth plot in Grasmere Churchyard.
Despite the death of loved ones, Wordsworth remained popular and had friends and acquaintances around him. In 1838, Wordsworth received an honorary doctorate in Civil Law from the University of Durham and, the following year, he was awarded the same honorary degree by the University of Oxford, when John Keble praised him as the “poet of humanity”. In 1842, the government awarded him a Civil List pension of £300 a year.
After the death of Robert Southey in 1843, Wordsworth became Poet Laureate. He initially refused the honour, saying that he was too old. However, he accepted it when the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, assured him that “you shall have nothing required of you”. Therefore, Wordsworth became the only poet laureate to write no official verses. When his daughter Dora died suddenly in 1847 at age 42, Wordsworth’s depression forced him to give up writing new material.
Wordsworth died on 23 April 1850 at his home at Rydal Mount from an aggravated case of pleurisy. He was eighty years old. He is buried at St Oswald’s Church, Grasmere. His widow, Mary, published his lengthy autobiographical “Poem to Coleridge” as The Prelude several months after his death.
While The Prelude did not interest people initially after it was published after his death, it has since become known as Wordsworth’s masterpiece. Along with Lyrical Ballads, The Prelude has ensured Wordsworth is credited one of the founders of English Romanticism and one its most central figures and important intellects.
Wordsworth’s poetry is renowned for its lyrical rhythm, his effortless use of language and the ability to compare nature to everyday life, evoking a spiritual and emotional connection with his readers that has been studied and enjoyed ever since his death.
- Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (1798)
- “Simon Lee”
- “We are Seven”
- “Lines Written in Early Spring”
- “Expostulation and Reply”
- “The Tables Turned”
- “The Thorn”
- “Lines Composed A Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”
- Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800)
- Preface to the Lyrical Ballads
- “Strange fits of passion have I known”
- “She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways”
- “Three years she grew”
- “A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal”
- “I travelled among unknown men”
- “Lucy Gray”
- “The Two April Mornings”
- “The Solitary Reaper”
- “The Ruined Cottage”
- “The Kitten at Play”
- Poems, in Two Volumes (1807)
- “Resolution and Independence”
- “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” Also known as “Daffodils”
- “My Heart Leaps Up”
- “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”
- “Ode to Duty”
- “The Solitary Reaper”
- “Elegiac Stanzas”
- “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”
- “London, 1802”
- “The World Is Too Much with Us”
- “French Revolution” (1810)
- Guide to the Lakes (1810)
- “To the Cuckoo”
- The Excursion (1814)
- Laodamia (1815, 1845)
- The White Doe of Rylstone (1815)
- Peter Bell (1819)
- Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822)
- The Prelude (1850)
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "William Wordsworth" https://englishhistory.net/poets/william-wordsworth/, November 18, 2021