William Wordsworth was an English poet who was born on April 7th, 1770, and whose poetry is some of the most influential in the English language.
Wordsworth was the second of five children born to parents John and Ann in the now-historic Wordsworth House in Cumberland. The home is centered in the Lake District, the area that Wordsworth and many of his contemporaries came to be associated with. He was born a year before his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth. He maintained a strong relationship with her throughout his life. He wrote several poems with his sister in mind, or as a character in a broader setting. These include ‘To My Sister.’
William Wordsworth’s father was a legal representative and was often away from home. He died in 1783, having remained distant from his son throughout his life. Despite this, there is evidence to suggest that John Wordsworth encouraged his son to read works by John Milton, Edmund Spenser, and more. His library was an important resource in Wordsworth’s development. His mother, Ann, died in 1778, a few years before his father.
Wordsworth’s poetry was first published in The European Magazine in 1787. This same year he started at St Johns College, Cambridge where he received a BA in 1791. Around this same period of time, he went on a walking tour of Europe. His first complete poetic publication appeared in 1793 and was titled An Evening Walk it was followed that same year by Descriptive Sketches.
A few years later he met fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge with whom he’d publish his best-known collection, Lyrical Ballads. It appeared in 1798 and is today considered to be the start of the Romantic period in English literature. It included poems like ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,’ ‘Lines Written in Early Spring,’ and ‘We are Seven.’ Coleridge famously contributed ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ The poems in this collection are some of the most important and widely read in the English language.
When the second edition was published two years later, Wordsworth was the only one listed as a contributor. He sought, as explained through the preface, to create poetry that used language “really used by men” and avoided the poetic diction of the previous periods. He famously defined poetry as:
the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
Around the same period that William Wordsworth and Coleridge published the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, the two traveled, along with Dorothy Wordsworth, to Germany. Later, Wordsworth started work on ‘The Prelude,’ commonly considered to be his masterpiece, while living with his sister in Goslar. During this period Wordsworth wrote a great number of poems ranging in themes from death to separation. Additionally, he, along with Coleridge, Robert Southey, and several other poets, became known as the Lake Poets.
In 1807, Coleridge published Poems, in Two Volumes. This collection included ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.’ Unfortunately, the collection did not do as well as Lyrical Ballads, the volume for which he’s most commonly cited for today.
In 1814, he published ‘The Excursion’ which was intended as the second part of ‘The Recluse,’ a long philosophical poem. Some believe that Wordsworth’s work declined during this period in part due to the considerable success he’d achieved.
Personal Life and Relationships
In the early 1790s, William Wordsworth fell in love with Annette Vallon, a French woman who gave birth to their daughter, Caroline, in 1792. He was forced to return to England without her the following year but continued to support her and their child to the best of his abilities as time passed. Caroline married in 1816 and Wordsworth settled £30 a year on her for the next twenty years.
When Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy returned to France to see Annette in the early 1800s, he broke to news to her that he’d be marrying Mary Hutchinson, a childhood friend. Dorothy lived with the couple and became close friends with Mary. Together, Mary and William Wordsworth had five children, they were John, Dora, Thomas, Catherine, and William. Three of the five died before Mary and William did.
Coleridge and Wordsworth’s relationship fell apart in 1810 due to Coleridge’s opium addiction. Unfortunately, two years later, Wordsworth’s daughter Catherine died at three years old and then his son Thomas died at six years old only six months later. His daughter Dora, died in 1847. This was around the same time that Wordsworth stopped writing.
Wordsworth, Mary, and Dorothy moved to Rydal Mount, Ambleside in 1813 where the poet spent the rest of his life. He mended his relationship with Coleridge in 1828, six years before the latter’s death. This was the same year that their close friend Charles Lamb, brother to Mary Lamb, also died.
In 1843, Wordsworth was named Poet Laureate of the UK, an honor he initially declined due to his age. Later, he accepted when the prime minister assured him that he’d have to do nothing in the role. He was succeeded by Alfred Lord Tennyson the year of his death.
Death and The Prelude
William Wordsworth died on April 23rd, 1850 at his home in Rydal Mount from complications associated with pleurisy. His poem, ‘The Prelude,’ was published posthumously by his wife. It is today considered to be the most important achievement of English Romanticism. Read an extract from ‘The Prelude,’ titled ‘Boat Stealing,’ here.