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Updated: Nov 10, 2020

William Wordsworth poured out a tangle of emotion in his poetry; he was passionate about everything, and penetrated all he wrote with the same intensity and sense of wonder. He was a supremely imaginative and graceful poet, producing everlasting and unique works which sparkle with vigour, enthusiasm and unparalleled vision.

Wordsworth was born in 1770, at Cockermouth, the Lake District in England, one of five children in an unremarkable household. His mother died when he was just eight years old and his father, a local solicitor, was so rent by sorrow that he was unable to deal with his eldest boys. He sent William and his brother Richard to school at Hawkhead, where, surrounded by glorious nature, William spent many carefree years, largely unsupervised and free from the strains of a motherless home. He read eagerly, devouring Henry Fielding and Jonathan Swift, taking up rowing and skating and spending many long hours walking. The seeds of the poetry of nature were sown, and many years later he recollected them, and allowed them to grow.

When Wordsworth’s father died, five years later, the family faced ruin. But his guardians struggled on, and allowed him to stay at Hawkhead, sending him eventually to Cambridge, against all odds. Wordsworth embraced with excitement the social life of his new friends, but despaired of what he considered to be uninspired and boring lectures. He had a disappointing school record and longed mainly for his holidays in the Lake District with his sister Dorothy, whose extraordinary perception both inspired and comforted him. He said of her, ‘She gave me eyes, she gave me ears’ and her ambition was, in return, to devote her life to him, to his care.

Two years before completing his degree, Wordsworth visited France, ironically on the twilight of the Revolution. As always a passionate idealist, he threw himself into the cause, pledging his support to the revolutionists upon his return to Cambridge. Following the completion of his education, several years later, he returned to France, and met a young girl named Annette Vallon, who would eventually give birth to his daughter. He had already returned to England when that news reached him, and war prevented him seeing his daughter and his lover for nearly ten years. He turned in despair to his sister Dorothy, powerless against the machinations of war, personally assaulted by the emotions which waged battle at the centre of his being, and intellectually battered by the collapse of his political ideals. He struggled for some time against depression and went, in 1795, to live with Dorothy. She was able to bring him some comfort, instilling a renewed sense of purpose in her idealistic but serious brother.

Wordsworth’s friend, Raisley Calvert, had recently died and left him £900, enough to hire ‘Racedown’, a house near Dorset. Here he began a friendship with Coleridge which spawned a close but turbulent relationship. It was through Coleridge that he realized his vocation as a poet and together they planned Lyrical Ballads in which The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Tintern Abbey appeared. The years in Dorset were marked by a prolific output by both men, and Wordsworth in particular was endlessly excited by the scope of his new career. He and Dorothy travelled to Germany, where the ‘Lucy’ Poems were written and then in 1799 they settled at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, the beginning of a quiet existence which provided immeasurable inspiration. They walked together, exchanged ideas and ideals, fed on each other's insights and observations, and became soulmates, each inextricably bound in the other's life. Dorothy was demented by grief, when, in 1802, Wordsworth married her best friend, Mary Hutchinson

But for Wordsworth these years marked some of his very best work, distinguished by simple rustic tales of country life, emotion, and nature. The pretensions which had marred his earlier work gave way to an uncomplicated understanding of himself and his poetry, and his verse became effortless and perceptive in its sincerity and simplicity. Coleridge had, by this time, followed them to the Lake District. He became deeply unhappy and addicted to drugs, and a great worry to the Wordsworth, who provided moral support for a man who grew increasingly immoral, and nursing care for a man who sought to destroy himself.

When John, his favourite brother, died in 1805, Wordsworth began The Prelude, with the intention of presenting it as a gift to Coleridge. He addressed the issues of mortality and found a kind of serenity in his discoveries. At peace with himself, he wrote some of his most eloquent sonnets and verses, and in the form of The Prelude one of the most insightful and revealing works ever produced by a poet.

The Wordsworth family expanded to include three children, and Thomas, a fourth was born in 1806. They moved from Dove Cottage, to a larger home in Allan Bank, where a fifth child, Catherine was born. The family was joined there by Coleridge and De Quincy. Wordsworth managed, in this disordered household, to publish works which usually met with disinterest or disdain. He and Coleridge published a magazine entitled The Friend, which had a short life, and caused the final breach between the two poets. And then, in 1812, when William and Mary’s sixth child was but two, Catherine died, followed by Thomas. They moved to Rydal, and by taking on the office of Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland, Wordsworth was able to support his family, dedicatedly working on The Excursion which was another eighteen years to publication.

From 1816 Wordsworth became increasingly unhappy and his work less and less remarkable. He longed for the fresh innocence of his early years, where his innate belief in the beauty of all that surrounded him provided him with unending inspiration and hope. But financial worries, the deaths of his children, the destruction of his friend Coleridge, all served to suffocate his vision. He turned half-heartedly to the church and wrote his Ecclesiastical Sonnets. But they lacked the verve and originality of his earlier work, and the lack of sincerity in his poetry betrayed his growing faithlessness.

But Wordsworth did, at the end of his life, achieve a sudden and overwhelming fame which lead, in 1843, to the post of Poet Laureate. When his favourite daughter Dora died in 1847, his grief threatened to cause his own death, so deep were the wounds of his anguish. He little enjoyed the last decade of his life, and cared for nothing after the death of Dora. The Recluse, his last great work, was never finished, but the despair of its author is almost tangible. He struggled with his work in the last years, producing some passages which echoed his earlier brilliance, but more often tedious verse. NEXT...

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