The Poetry Corner. April.
William Wordsworth. (1770-1850)
William Wordsworth was born on 7th. April 1770 Cockermouth, Cumberland. Cockermouth is a little town in the north west of England, in the region known as the Lake District.
He was the second of five children born to his parents, John and Ann. There were four boys and one girl, Richard, William, Dorothy, John and Christopher. William had a wild and free, happy childhood. He played on the banks of the river Derwent which bordered the garden of the family home. William’s happy childhood is beautifully told by the twenty nine years old Wordsworth in The Prelude.
I, a four year’s child,
A naked boy, among the silent pools
Made one long bathing of a summer’s day,
Basked in the sun, or plunged into thy streams,
Alternate, all a summer’s day, or coursed
Over the sandy fields, and dashed the flowers
Of yellow grunsel: or, when the crag and hill,
Were bronzed with a deep radiance, stood alone
A naked savage in the thunder-shower…
The family home was an impressive building in the main street of the little town and its garden was bordered by the river Derwent. Wordsworth’s father John worked as a law agent to Sir James Lowther, the most powerful man in the district. Sir James later became the first Earl of Lonsdale; he was a prominent politician and was also considered to be one of the most hated tyrants in England at the time. John and Ann Wordsworth and their family lived rent free in this house owned by Sir James.
William and Dorothy spent long periods of time with their maternal grandparents and the children received only a little formal education. William attended an infant school while with his grandparents and Mary Hutchinson was also an infant pupil. Wordsworth married Mary many years later. Back in Cockermouth, he attended Reverend Gilbank’s grammar school. William’s father introduced him to the important and best works of English poetry. At a very young age William could recite by heart, large portions of Shakespeare, Milton and Spenser.
In 1778 the Wordsworth family was devastated, disrupted and displaced when Ann Wordsworth died of pneumonia. Her death caused the separation of the children and the loss of their home. Dorothy, who was six years old at the time of her mother’s death, went to live with her mother’s cousin in Halifax where she subsequently grew up. She, Dorothy and her brother William did not meet again for nine years. Richard and William were sent to stay with a childless couple, Ann and Hugh Tyson, so that they could attend grammar school at Hawkshead. Eventually, the three Wordsworth brothers and a cousin became part of the Tyson household.
The eight years spent there were very happy years for William.
Growing up in Hawkshead provided a good education for Wordsworth. He realised the worth of the normal ordinary people with whom he had contact. He appreciated the value and stability of the farm labourers, shepherds, blacksmiths, shopkeepers and innkeepers and the ferrymen on Lake Windermere. He recognised the necessity of continuity of work for a good society. Wordsworth observed society from an early age not only through the lives of those people with whom he interacted, but also by his interaction with Nature. Although his school day was long he loved to ramble and gather nuts in the woods, to discover raven’s nests and he loved fishing and skating. Wordsworth wrote “‘twas my joy, to wander half the night among the cliffs or to get up at the first hour of the morning and be at one with Nature”.
At school he studied Latin, Greek. Mathematics Science and Natural Philosophy, English, French and dancing. He had access to his father’s collection of books and to the school library. He read voraciously. His two headmasters loved poetry and lent him books. He was encouraged to write while at Grammar School and one of his earliest poems, inspired by the setting of the sun was written when he was fourteen years old. At this young age, he realised that poets had ignored Nature as a subject. He determined to fill that poetic void.
William was thirteen when his father died and the children once more suffered a sense of isolation. The children were now under the guardianship of two uncles who had a hard struggle against Sir James to acquire the inheritance for the children. During the following school holidays Wordsworth spent time with his grandparents in Penrith but the relationship was not a happy one. When he was seventeen and Dorothy sixteen, they were reunited and spent the summer rambling and they were joined by Mary Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s future wife. Later that year, William Wordsworth left the Lake District for the first time to study at Cambridge University.
In 1787 Wordsworth entered St. John’s College Cambridge but he was unsettled by the worldliness of the University and its intellectualism. He disliked competitive examinations and spent more time socialising than studying. He was awarded a pass degree in 1791. In 1790 the summer of his final year in University, Wordsworth and his Welsh friend, Robert Jones went on a walking tour through France and Switzerland. They described France, as a nation “mad with joy” as it celebrated the first anniversary of Bastille Day.
Wordsworth was now twenty one and the year was 1791. He rejected a career in law or the church and spent January to May in London. He read extensively and attended debates in the House of Commons and he became more politically aware. He had been greatly influenced by the French mood of Revolution and the concept of equality. From the time of his father’s death and the ensuing family problems, Wordsworth had become aware of the injustices suffered by people. He was conscious that revolution was a valid proposition
Wordsworth decided to cross the channel to France both to improve his French and to see for himself the effects of the 1789 Revolution. It was in Orleans that he met and was attracted to Annette Vallon who was a Catholic and four years his senior. Soon Annette was pregnant with Wordsworth’s child. His daughter, Anne-Caroline was born 15th. December 1792 but, earlier that year, the previous October, Wordsworth had left Annette and went to stay in Paris. He had returned to London by the end of December. Critics argue that Paris during this period was too interesting politically to be missed or, that Wordsworth was awaiting his passport. Annette expected Wordsworth to marry her and her letters were full of longing for his return. Furthermore, the outbreak of war between England and France made a union between Annette and William more unlikely.
Professor George Mc Clean Harper of Princetown University published in 1921 ” William Wordsworth, his life.” The Professor had received credible papers in 1917 confirming the birth of Annette Vallon’s daughter Anne-Caroline and naming William Wordsworth as the father, which he acknowledged. She was named Caroline Wordsworth and it was with this name that she married her husband in later years.
William Wordsworth realised that unlike France, England would not tolerate dissent. He wrote a piece arguing that not only the British Monarchy but the aristocracy should be abolished. This was never published during his lifetime. About this time Wordsworth published two poems. “An Evening Walk” and “Descriptive Sketches” but neither was well received.
Once more William set out with a friend, William Calvert on a tour of the West Country. During this tour he stopped at Tintern Abbey before continuing up through Wales. Soon after, William Calvert offered Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, a farm, Windy Brow, a farm surrounded by natural beauty. Here William and Dorothy led a simple and contented life drinking milk, not tea and eating chiefly potatoes. While Dorothy studied French and Italian, Wordsworth was rewriting and revising his poetry.
William Calvert’s younger brother was dying from tuberculosis and he bequeathed William Wordsworth the sum of 900 pounds in his will. This belief in his poetry was a great boost for Wordsworth. While awaiting the payment of this inheritance Wordsworth spent time with various friends and while in Bristol he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This was the beginning of a life long friendship…Coleridge was one of the many radicals who supported the French Revolution that Wordsworth encountered. Wordsworth and Dorothy were given Racedown Lodge rent free and it was arranged that they would look after a young boy, Basil Montagu. While were they living at Racedown Lodge there were many protests by Liberals against the government. The king’s coach was attacked as he was on his way to the state opening of Parliament. Wordsworth in his poem “Imitation of Juvenal”attacked those who were powerful and wealthy, but corrupt. His Play The Borderers was rejected by Covent Garden and he found it difficult to get his work published. From Racedown they moved to Alfoxden house, a beautiful mansion among the Somerset Hills so as to be close to Coleridge and his family.
The three friends loved to ramble about the countryside observing nature and taking notes, so much so that they were investigated by the Home Office. Eventually they were asked to leave Alfoxden due to their association with Coleridge and other radicals and because of Wordsworth’s political beliefs. The Wordsworth’s left Alfoxden late June 1798 and continued their rambling and exploring and spent some time in Germany with Coleridge and another friend John Chester. 1797-1798 marked a very important development for Wordsworth and Coleridge. The publication of the Lyrical Ballads on the 4th of October was a turning point in English poetry. The poems were totally different to the poetry of the time and were a collaboration between the two poets. Wordsworth wrote nineteen of the twenty four poems in Lyrical Ballads. This book of poetry was a new departure in English literature. The language of the poems was the language of conversation; the subject matter was human characters and human incidents. There were poems about beggers, a mad mother, and an idiot boy. Wordsworth intended to write about the world and the people who existed in that reality. His intention was to alter people’s perceptions, not only of poetry but of how they viewed their fellow man.
Wordsworth had begun writing Books 1 and 2 of The Prelude while in Germany. The Prelude ultimately consisted of fourteen books and was sub titled ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’. He remembers the Stolen Boat and Skating and many of the Lucy poems including “A slumber did my spirit seal”. The Lucy poems are an enigma; No one knows the true meaning or identity. Critics argue that Lucy is either the universal reader or the poet’s sister Dorothy. Lucy may be an imaginative tool, the muse to whom the poet spoke.
The Wordsworth’s returned to the Lake District and set up home in Dove Cottage, Grasmere. Wordsworth celebrated the locality in his poems and was idyllically happy with the hills and lakes and rivers of the area. Later Coleridge and his family moved to the Lake District, Wordsworth’s brother John came to visit as did Mary Hutchinson and a period of happiness prevailed.
In 1800 Wordsworth prepared another edition of Lyrical Ballads which excluded Coleridge and caused some unease in their relationship…These new poems were inspired by “low and rustic life”. Wordsworth wanted to show that “men who do not wear fine clothes can feel deeply” He was obsessed with revising his work and did so continually. This compulsion caused him illness fatigue and sleepless nights.
Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson fell in love and decided to marry on October 4th. 1802. Before doing so, William and Dorothy travelled to France to visit Annette and his daughter Caroline who was now nine years old. Wordsworth wrote “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free” in which he expresses his feelings for Caroline, but little else is known of their relationship.
William and Mary had a happy marriage and a family of six children. His reputation as a poet was growing and once again his relationship with Coleridge was troubled. Coleridge disapproved of Wordsworth’s short poems and Wordsworth disapproved of Coleridge’s neglect of his family. This was a very productive period of his life and it was in 1804 the year that Wordsworth’s daughter Dora was born that he wrote his famous poem that would make him known throughout the world.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,b
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced: but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
The subject is the natural world particularly daffodils and it is a celebration of memory. Wordsworth shows us, the reader, the connection between what we see before us, how we see again through the power of memory and imagination and how we can store up the present moment for pleasure and comfort in the future.
By 1805 Wordsworth had completed the first draft of The Prelude and many specialists consider that Wordsworth had written his best poetry by then.
At the age of seventy three Wordsworth was appointed Poet Laureate. He was conservative and a churchgoer in later life the opposite of what he had been as a young man. He continued to plant trees and to walk at all times of the year. In 1850 William Wordsworth contracted pleurisy and died on 13th. April. He is buried in Grasmere churchyard, one of the world’s most visited literary shrines.
Mac Monagle, Niall ed., 2009 Poetry Now. The Celtic Press. Dublin 8.
Birdthistle, Sheighle 2003 University notes. Ireland.
Ousby, Ian, ed., 1994. The Wordsworth Companion to Literature in English. Wordsworth Editions Ltd., Cumberland House, Crib Street, Ware. Herfordshire SG12 9ET
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. (C.1804 P.1807) page 219
Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. (C.1803 P.1807) page 701
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 (C.1802 P.1807) page 320
Untitled. Strange fits of passion have I known. (C.1799 P.1800) page 125
Power of Music. (C.1806 P. 1807) page 220
To a Butterfly. (C.April 20th.1802 P. 1807) page 122
She was a phantom of delight. (C.1804. P.1807) page 217