William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850)

Life and Works


William Wordsworth was born on April 7, 1770, at Cockermouth on the River Derwent, in the heart of the Lake District. He was the second of five children. His father was the personal attorney of Sir James Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale, the most powerful man in the area. His first formal education was at Anne Birkett's school at Penrith, where one of his classmates was his future wife Mary Hutchinson.

Wordsworth's House in Cockermouth. His birthplace


After his mother's death in 1778, Wordsworth was sent to school at Hawkshead the following year. He was happy at Hawkshead and came to consider it his home. There Wordsworth was given a solid foundation in Classics, mathematics, and science. The schoolmaster, William Taylor, encouraged Wordsworth's first attempts to write poetry.

John Wordsworth died in 1783, leaving the thirteen-year-old William and his siblings orphans. (This event is described in connection with a "spot of time" in Book XII of The Prelude.) After his father's death it came out that the Earl of Lonsdale had owed his attorney a sum of 4500 pounds. The Earl avoided paying this debt until his death in 1802.


Dove Cottage in Grasmere was William Wordsworth's
home from 1799 to 1808.
Rydal Mount, near Lake Windermere, was the home
of William Wordsworth from 1813 to 1850


Wordsworth matriculated at Cambridge in 1787. Wordsworth's uncles, now his guardians, wanted him to become a clergyman or lawyer, but Wordsworth was unmotivated. His grades were consistently mediocre. In the summer of 1790, before beginning his final term at college, Wordsworth went on a walking tour of Europe with a his schoolfriend, Robert Jones. They arrived in France at the one-year celebration of the French Revolution. Wordsworth was more interested in aesthetics than politics, and the real highlight of the tour was the passage of the Simplon Pass (The Prelude Book VI), one of Wordsworth's most significant encounters with the nature's sublimity. After graduation, Wordsworth's plans for the future remained vague. In November of 1791, he returned to France, in order to learn French and to become a traveling tutor. He stayed in France for one year, during which became a passionate supporter of the French Revolution. He made friends with Captain Michel Beaupuy (The Prelude, Book IX) and fell in love with Annette Vallon, the daughter of a surgeon in Orleans. She was Catholic and the daughter of a prominent Royalist family. He intended to marry her, but lack of money forced him to return to England in December of 1792. Almost immediately, war broke out between England and France, and another trip across the Channel would not be possible until 1802.

Allan Bank in Grasmere, where William Wordsworth
lived in 1808-1810
Finding a livelihood was difficult. His enthusiasm for the French Revolution caused him divided feelings. Wordsworth wanted to be loyal to England, yet he believed his nation was fighting against Liberty. He lived in London and cultivated the radical circles of Godwin, Wollstonecraft, and Paine. After the beginning of the war, the government cracked down on dissent, and Paine would eventually be convicted for supporting the French Revolution as a "rational" act in his The Rights of Man. In 1793, Wordsworth wrote A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, which was published only after his death and in which he supported the Revolution and the execution of Louis XVI.

In 1795 two events changad his life. A young friend named Raisley Calvert, whom Wordsworth had been nursing, died of tuberculosis and left him a legacy of 900 pounds, hoping to encourage his friend to deovte himself to poetry. In August he met Coleridge, and this gave rise to a lasting friendship. In July of 1797, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved to Alfoxden House, only a few miles from Coleridge's home in Nether Stowey. It was a year of intense creative partnership that would result in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote poetry, and discussed their theories on poetry, and commented on each other's poems.

Lyrical Ballads was published on October 4, 1798. It was released anonymously. Its publication enabled the two poets to travel to Germany and in September of 1798.


Wordsworth's tomb in Grasmere Hawkshead. William Wordsworth was a
pupil at the Old Grammar School.


Coleridge was interested in German philosophy. The winter of 1798-99 was very cold and the Wordsworths returned to England, settling at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, which would become their home for the next eight years. One year later, Coleridge returned from Germany and moved to Greta Hall in Keswick, in order to be near the Wordsworths. Wordsworth kept working on the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge encouraged him to write a preface that would announce their new poetic principles. In the second edition Wordsworth enlarged his contribution to the volume which appeared only under his name. At this time he was also working on Books I and II of The Prelude.

A third edition of Lyrical Ballads, with an expanded "Preface," came out in 1802. On May 24 of this very year, the Earl of Lonsdale died, allowing Wordsworth and his siblings to finally come into their inheritance. Alter more than nine years of war with France, the Peace of Amiens was declared and in August Wordsworth (along with Dorothy) finally met his daughter Carolina in France. She inspired one of Wordsworth's finest sonnets, "It is a beauteous evening." Wordsworth made arrangements to provide Caroline with thirty pounds a year.

The trip to France provided an end to Wordsworth's relationship with Annette Vallon. On October 4, 1802, Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson, a childhood friend. Dorothy did not attend the ceremony. William and Dorothy Wordsworth were very close. Some critics have described the "Lucy" as an attempt by Wordsworth to overcome his maybe improper feelings for his sister. Even Coleridge established a connection between Lucy with Dorothy. Yet, fact is, Mary and Dorothy became close friends.

In 1803 the first of Wordsworth's five children was born. That same year, important friendships were formed with Walter Scott, Sir George Beaumont, and Robert Southey. (Wordsworth and Southey already knew each other, but had not been particularly friendly.) In April 1804, Coleridge, in poor health and with an increasing opium addiction, went on a Mediterranean tour. Wordsworth would not see him for two years. In 1804 Wordsworth finished Ode: Intimations of Immortality, and advanced work on The Prelude. Coleridge believed that Wordsworth would only achieve the ultimate expression of his greatness as a philosophical poet through the composition of a longer work. Wordsworth had planned to write a larger work which he had been discussing with Coleridge for years; but it would be still more years before Wordsworth did any substantial work on The Recluse.
Dorothy Wordsworth
In 1804, Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. Wordsworth experienced a growing disillusionment with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. A decade earlier, Wordsworth had believed that a revolution, even a bloody one, was necessary in order to bring about change. His faith in the French Revolution waned with the rise of Napoleon and the French invasion of Switzerland.

In February of 1805, Wordsworth's brother John drowned at sea. Despite this terrible blow, Wordsworth managed to complete The Prelude in May. In December of 1806, Coleridge returned, just in time to help Wordsworth prepare Poems, in Two Volumes which comprised Ode: Intimations of Immortality. This edition of his poetry established his reputation.

In 1807 Wordsworth left Dove Cottage for a larger home, Allan Bank. In 1810 Wordsworth's friendship with Coleridge lapsed. Although they reconciled in later years, they rarely met alter 1810. Coleridge moved to London to live with Basil Montagu (whose son was the inspiration for the poem "Anecdote for Fathers").

In 1812, Wordsworth lost his daughter Catherine and his son Thomas. In May of 1813 the family left Allan Bank for Rydal Mount at Ambleside, where Wordsworth would spend the rest of his life. He took up the post of Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland, providing his household with financial stability. The office payed 400-600 a year. The younger Romantics criticized Wordsworth's turncoat politics, the taking of a government job. Robert Browning accused him of abandoning his radicalism "just for a handful of silver." 1813 is also the year Robert Southey accepted the office of Poet Laureate.

William and Dorothy
Despite his new duties, Wordsworth wrote intensely, and in 1814. Entitled The Excursion, this long blank verse poem was intended to be the second of three parts of The Recluse. He had planned it some fifteen years earlier with Coleridge. Wordsworth had finally published the sort of long philosophical poem Coleridge had been sure would guarantee his friend's immortality. The poem received some positive reviews in addition to the famous negative critique by Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review (which began "This will never do").

In 1817 a radical early work of Southey's, Wat Tyler, was published, much to the now-conservative poet's embarrassment. Southey and his fellow "Lake Poets" Wordsworth and Coleridge were attacked in print (by such people as William Hazlitt) for having abandoned their youthful ideals. In the subtitle of The Vision of Judgement, Byron would gleefully refer to Southey as "the author of Wat Tyler." In 1817, Coleridge published Biographia Literaria, and its detailed recalling of the old days which caused Wordsworth some discomfort. In 1819 Wordsworth published a long poem called Peter Bell, written in 1798, which he dedicated to Southey. Shelley responded with a parody entitled Peter Bell the Third, which mocked Wordsworth for his change of allegiances. Wordsworth campaigned for Tory politicians in the 1818 and 1820 elections, shocking the younger generation Romantics.

Wordsworth spent a good deal of time traveling. In 1820, along with Dorothy and Mary, he retraced the path of the Continental tour he had taken with Robert Jones thirty years earlier. On this trip, Mary finally met Annette Vallon. By 1820-1830's Wordsworth became famous. Tourists thronged to his home, taking satisfaction in his integrity, simple manners, boundless self-confidence. He received as many as 30 a day, Keats being one of them. As he approached the age of sixty, he was confronted with the deaths of many of his oldest friends. Between 1825 and 1835, Beaumont, Scott, Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and Robert Jones died.

After 1831, he befriended a new generation of writers: John Stuart Mill, Emerson and Carlyle. In 1836 he met, Robert Browning and his future wife Elizabeth Barrett. He spent much time revising earlier works, including The Prelude.

In 1839 Wordsworth received a honorary degree at Oxford. In 1843, after the death of Southey, Wordsworth was named Poet Laureate. In 1845 he met Tennyson. At the time of his death on April 13, 1850, Wordsworth was widely considered one of the greatest poets. The Prelude was published posthumously.